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 …
… On weekends, Jerusalem is a happy madhouse.
Alas, I'm referring only to the Falls Church hole in the wall, not the Holy City. If only. The ancient capital claimed by all three of the world's major religions could stand a little more of the spirit of this Middle Eastern restaurant.
Friends and families of all denominations descend on the open-room cafe to catch up or, just as often, celebrate an occasion, which they commemorate with small talk, laughter, and clinking of glasses. Rare are the tables that aren't strewn with the kitchen's tasty, generously portioned plates.
A raft of them arrives in the form of the veggie combo platter, which includes baba ghanous, hummus, tabbouleh and foul. I like to extend the meatless spread by ordering a bowl of the excellent harira, a Moroccan soup made with lentils, tomatoes and onions that leaves lingering hits of cinnamon, ginger and red pepper, and a neat variation of fetoosh, which adds thin discs of fried eggplant to the vinegared mix of lettuce, tomatoes, onions and crisped pita.
All prime the palate for the hearty main courses, like the garlicky chicken schwarma or the makluba, a robust dish of rice and high-quality lamb that benefits from a few splashes of harissa (ask your server for this peppery condiment, which Middle Easterners use the way we use ketchup).
There's a dazzling display of cookies, tarts and cakes up front, near the cash register, and I don't consider a visit here complete that doesn't include at least a few of them. The basboosas, sticky confections of semolina and coconut, are highest on my list, but there's also good baklava and kinafa, a light, crunchy pastry made with fine threads of vermicelli. …
… I learned to love Tex-Mex at Tippy's Taco House in College Park, spending many an afternoon in the back of the restaurant with my father, sitting on orange plastic chairs, talking about art and books and sports and feasting on great bad-for-you food. The restaurant changed names, becoming Terrapin Taco, then moved and then eventually folded — leaving, I have to admit, a longing for baked burritos, sunken enchiladas and chalupas. I occasionally find my fix at the Tippy's in Fairfax, where I recently chowed on two bean-slathered chalupas and a Coke (and for less than five bucks). Apparently I'm not the only one pining away nostalgically.
Ike Grigoropoulos, part of the triumvirate of restaurateurs that operates Cava, has installed a Tippy's Taco House in the location previously occupied by Bobby's Crab Cakes, in Rockville Town Center. According to the Washington Business Journal, Grigoropoulos plans to open several more in the region. Grigoropoulos's family first brought the Texas-based franchise to the DC area; the restaurateur got his start there, washing dishes.
This new Tippy's is not quite the old Tippy's — there are, get this, fajitas on the menu — but the tacos (I got them with homemade beans) were right on, thin and crunchy and not tricked-out. Just as important, Grigoropoulos has reproduced the distinctive Tippy's salsa (a vinegary, tomatoey mix that I've always felt compelled to apply generously) and come close to reproducing the equally distinctive Tippy's guac (more black pepper than most). I'll be back. …
The description last week of your waitress in the Italian Market in Philly reminded me of waitresses at the old Ed Debevics in Chicago and at Durgen Park in Boston.
Older, intentionally rude and crass waitresses who don't give a hoot about what you want, and will gladly replace your order for something she thinks you should have instead.
Really, it's part of the charm and gives you a good story every time.
The best is when you ask for something and instead of replying, they just turn around and walk the other way – possibly to return with the item you've requested.
Hysterical. Not for the finicky diner who likes to be doted on.
Thanks for writing in …
I personally love this kind of waiter or waitress. How about the rest of you?
We talk a lot on here about service, but the fact is, everybody has a different idea of what constitutes good service.
If I'm dining on my own, outside of the area, I want to know I'm being waited on by someone with a personality — not an automaton. I want an interaction, if possible. That's not to say that I want a server to dominate my meal and become a hyper-chatter, filling me in on all the details of his or her personal life. But I want to know there's a person there, and that it's not just somebody doing my bidding.
As I say, that's me.
What do you like in a waiter or waitress? And at a certain level, do you appreciate a certain kind of crustiness and eccentricity?
I finally tried Kushi a couple of weeks ago. I went alone on a scorching evening. I think it would be a fun place with a someone else who appreciated this style of cooking. I can say an evening there isn't cheap, but man, was it worth it!
Pork belly skewers…..like hot, salty pieces of heaven on a stick! I ate 2 orders!! and secretly wished for 6 more! The only other thing that compared was the Oyster Jewels. Until then, I'd never tried uni. I loved it. Later in the evening I tried the uni as an order of sushi along with sashimi. That was not as mindblowing, but the salmon and yellowtail were both excellent quality.
As per your review, I tried the roasted quail stuffed with duck sausage….a triumph! Again, something that I could eat a dozen of, like chicken wings!
My server, Jinny, was lovely and helpful when it came to pacing of my experience and offered a nice suggestion on a bottle of sake.
In all, I really enjoyed it and wish I could afford to go a lot more often! Thanks!
Thank you, that's good to hear.
It's not cheap, no. But in a way, that's not such a bad thing. To have sushi restored to a treat, something to splurge on, as opposed to something you indulge in a couple times a week. For that, there's always the trays at places like Pret a Manger or the refrigerated cases of the grocery store. You can save up for the superlative places like Kushi and then really go to town when you do.
I finaly tried Graffiato last Friday. After waiting 1.5 hours, we were finally seated and starving. While nothing blew me away, everything we ordered was solid. The place has a fun, trendy vibe.
My only gripe about the place (and I wonder if others have complained to you about the same) is that the waiters are EXTREMELY pushy. I ordered a $10 glass of wine, and he tried to convince me to order the $17 glass. I ordered a series of small plates, and he successfully convinced me to order some of the "special" small plates as well. I was too full for dessert, and I repeatedly indicated that I don't like nutella, yet he still was pushing me to buy homemade nutella cookies to go. These are just a few of the occurances throughout the evening.
I dine out A LOT, and in all my years, I have never experienced this level of pushiness at a restaurant. Do you think that the waiters at Graffiato get incentives for selling certain items? I don't like feeling pressured when ordering and that's how I felt all evening. It's going to play into my decision on whether I go back.
Thanks for writing in …
It'd certainly be worth looking into. Though I somehow doubt you could ever find out the truth.
Everything about the place is pumped up. The food is pumped up, the vibe is pumped up, the people are pumped up, the prices are pumped up. It's a very adrenalized sort of place. This is good, in ways. It's bad in ways, too.
I deplore the sort of pushiness you're talking about. I deplore it with Jehovah's Witnesses at my door, I deplore it with car salesman on the lot, I deplore it with doctors who lean on "the numbers" and incite fear, I deplore it with students angling for grade changes …
They have? Where?
Nothing I have seen falls under the description of "pretty bad." What have you been reading?
And I do plan to go at some point, yes — count on it, and count on a review down the line, too.
I mean, there's a restaurant in DC called Lincoln, on Vermont Ave., and I can't think you could do any better than that — at least for thematic purposes.
(Why do I feel like I've just been set up?)
Curious — is anybody else out there in a book club? What are you reading?
I belong to one, and love it. We almost never read non-fiction, or not of the straight-ahead variety such as biographies and big journalistic sorts of books. I tend to think fiction has more to discuss — more to pull apart, more to ponder, more to dig beneath the surface. And what is the purpose of gathering in a group like this, if not to put many heads together and try to arrive at a richer, fuller sense of what the author is up to, and why?
As I say, that's me. …
Where I grew up in Garrett County there is a converted soda fountain/diner called Englander's.
The waitresses are nice, but they will talk back to locals and sometimes when they are busy you have to go and get your own coffee. But they are very nice to out-of-towners who aren't familiar with their ways.
On the other hand I recently had a really awful server at a restaurant in Arlington and it wasn't charming, at all, to the point it will make me think about going back. She was rude, took an incorrect order, and than said she would be right back with things when she wasn't, and then never apologized or acknowledged any error.
Yeah, there's a difference between good sass and attitude.
Between a character and a bore.
A lot also depends on the place.
I guess I just wish we had more places in this area that took themselves less seriously. Those are the kinds of places where you tend to get really interesting waitresses and waiters. Possibly because they're attracted to work in environments like that
You know what we have a lot of? We have a lot of places that COULD be fun, if they weren't so conceptualized. If the air of self-consciousness were not so thick. If they were not so studied and mannered.
And you know what?!? I almost ordered the nutella cookies to go, even though I really don't like nutella.
What is wrong w/ me !! Why do I feel guilty for not making the waiter happy? I totally succomb to pressure.
On another note, Mike Isabella was around all evening, chatting it up w/ everyone, taking, pictures, etc. A "pumped up" place indeed. Just don't pressure me, and we're all good!
I've seen this psychology at work many times.
The waiter WANTS you to feel guilty for not making him happy. Wants you to feel that it is YOUR job to please HIM.
I have a friend who refers to behavior like this — aggressive, ruthless behavior, behavior meant to make another person feel low and crappy — as "of the devil."
My girlfriend and I like to take a drive outside the city every now and then in search of a good,r reasonably priced meal. We really like Nest Cafe in Bethesda, but I haven't ventured into Va, Silver Spring, etc.
Can you recommended a worthwhile stop that is easy to find and park, where two could dine comfortably for say, $60? Nearby shops and entertainment help too. Thanks for your suggestions.
Well, I really like Kao Thai, in Silver Spring — since you brought up Silver Spring, and also since you emphasized easy to find and park.
I first wrote about it about four months ago, and have not wavered since in my enthusiasm. Terrific red curry, a very good basil chicken and jungle curry, and I love a lot of the appetizers there, including the curry puffs, the wonton soup (prepared with homemade chicken stock), the larb and the bikini shrimp.
You can eat grandly at Kao Thai for about $45 for two.
I'd also recommend Jackie's, on Sligo, though you'd have to watch your spending more carefully. But worth it. These are imaginative, well-executed plates, served up in a setting that — speaking of fun — is about as fun as it gets around these parts.
We could use more places like Jackie's.
What kind of restaurant do you find it the most difficult to figure out a star rating for?
That's a really good question.
And a really unusual question. And a really hard question.
I guess I would have to say the restaurant that falls right in the middle of the scale — the place that has a lot going for it, but that also stumbles a fair bit, too.
I'll have to keep thinking about this one. I may have a different answer for you if you ask me again in a few weeks.
I know a lot of you out there regard the internet as a permanent archive, and I suppose there's no denying that, but that's not to say that everything I write on here, in this forum, is something I stand by for the ages. I change my mind a lot, about a lot of things — not just food-related things — and often I'll re-read something I've written on here and think: Nope, that's not quite how I feel about it. Close, but not quite. Or sometimes: Can't say I really feel that way. At that moment, perhaps. But not now …
I see a chat like this as a free-form sort of thing. What I write, in answer to a question — typing fast and off the cuff — is an expression of how I feel in that particular moment.
Less an alternative to something published on paper, and more a conversation in a bar.
I believe that a lot of the ire that's directed toward waiters and waitresses is misplaced, and that it ought to be heaped on management.
But management's not right there, the way a waiter or waitress is. They make for convenient scapegoats when things go wrong.
In 4 years of living in DC, I've never eaten Chinese food in Chinatown (not counting ping pong).
Is anything in that neighborhood worth the trip? I'm not expecting fine dining, but I don't want to miss out and I have no idea where to start. Thanks!
Why in the world would you want to eat Chinese food in Chinatown? ; )
Actually, Chinatown is not Chinatown, and hasn't been for a long while. It's really just a shadow of itself these days. The real action, the real excitement, is in the suburbs — at places like Sichuan Pavilion and Michael's Noodles and A&J in Rockville, at Hong Kong Palace in Falls Church, and at Sichuan Village in Chantilly.
Is anything in "Chinatown" worth the trip? No, not if you mean — is anything worth the time and investment in travel?
But if you happen to be in the area, or close by, there are a number of places that aren't bad, and that I wouldn't mind killing an hour or two in. New Big Wong, Full Kee, Eat First …
I would like to do a dim sum lunch for my birthday for 10 – 15 people. We all live in DC but can drive up to half an hour.
Any suggestions? Thanks.
Probably the easiest for you to get to, since you're unwilling to commit to a bigger trip, would be China Garden, in Crystal City.
It's not bad — above average dim sum.
If you do go, please drop me a line and let me know how things turned out …
Hi Todd –
I know that you are a fan of Woodberry Kitchen and Bluegrass Tavern, but have you been to Charleston since your mini-review a couple of years ago?
My wife and I went recently and other than a forgettable dessert, our meals were spectacular. Certainly worth the drive and the expense!
Also, I would love to go with you on one of your food binges. I'll eat anything!
Eating anything is only one of the prerequisites. How about eating three meals in a span of three hours?
Drop me a line …
I'd like to get to Charleston again. Thanks for the reminder …
Love your chats! I recently got a new job and have been invited out by a friend for dinner to celebrate. Any suggestions for dinner during the week, any type of food (we are adventurous), any neighborhood, $30 or under for entrees?
Thanks in advance!
You might give the new Fiola a shot.
It's a new Italian restaurant, and the cooking aims for a sort of rusticated sophistication. The chef is Fabio Trabocchi, who used to command the stoves at Maestro, which, five, six years ago was the best restaurant in the area. It's on the outskirts of Penn Quarter. Go for the pastas. Go for the fish courses. And save room for dessert.
I went to Graffiato on Sunday, and must disagree with the previous commenter's assessment that the waiters are pushy. Mine certainly wasn't.
I was at a table of 6, and we all got the prosecco on tap, and we never pressured to get something more pricey or get another glass.
Also, ALL the food was exceptional, not just ok. And, really you should have gotten the nutella cookies.
You're right, the chatter was wrong to say that the waiters, plural, are pushy, when she was referring to one waiter in particular.
But the spirit of what she was saying holds. When you go to a restaurant for the first time, and you get a pushy waiter, it's hard to step back and say: I'm sure I have the aberration. I'll bet it's completely different here for everybody else.
One waiter's pushiness can color an entire experience.
I also tend to be of the mind that if there is one pushy waiter, that there are probably more in the mix. I tend to think that pushiness results from policy.
There's a way to be pushy, and there's a way not to be pushy. I'll say that.
Many places don't know how to be pushy the right way.
Il Pizzico, in Rockville — a perennial favorite of the Zagat books — is a restaurant with not one pushy waiter, but a staff full of them. It's just the way they do business there. The way they have always done business there. And it's not subtle at all.
It's a very tasty place that has a vested interest in hustling you out the door in about an hour and a quarter. While also pushing you to order a bottle of wine from the list when you sit down.
As for the nutella cookies at Graffiato … yes, I've had them. They're good. Three high-quality hazelnut Oreos, basically. For five dollars.
Yeah, you kind of have to.
And also the Hong Kong-style shrimp dumpling soup. A must-order there. …
That's it for this week. Thanks for all the questions and complaints and tips, everybody. … Next week I'll be back with a review of a restaurant I alluded to on Twitter last week — a place where I recently had a 7-course prix fixe dinner for $29. Believe it.
Be well, eat well, and let's do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]