Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman finds the city's best pizza in . . . a bar, discovers a $29 seven-course tasting menu, and talks about great wine shops in Washington.

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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   Word of Mouth
   
   … One standard piece of advice for newbies to horse handicapping is to "bet the jockey, not the horse." In other words: A horse is only as good as the jockey who rides it.
   This advice applies just as well to the restaurant industry, where chefs and managers hop from place to place with the frequency of flies to newly budded flowers. Food lovers who monitor the comings and goings of the biz — who track its developments the way traders track stocks — know just how outdated a year-old review or a Zagat sticker of approval can be when a chef or GM flees. If you want a good meal, you've got to go where the talent goes.   
   The latest restaurant to illustrate the Jockey Principle is Local 16 (1602 U St. NW; 202-265-2828), where Edan MacQuaid and Alex Vallcorba have recently taken over the kitchen. MacQuaid and Vallcorba are veterans of the kitchen at 2 Amys, the clattering Cleveland Park pizzeria that long ago established itself as one of the city's — and country's — best.
   MacQuaid has earned a reputation as the most in-demand pizzaiolo in town, as well as the pizzaiolo least likely to stick around. Following his stint at 2 Amys, he consulted at Red Rocks, putting that neighborhood pizzeria on the map. He waited for more than a year for the owners of 2941 to open Pizzeria Orso, in Falls Church, which he promptly turned into the area's preeminent destination for boutique pizza before being kicked out in March. Most recently, he passed on his pie-making expertise to the kitchen at Ardeo+Bardeo.
   Local 16 would seem an unlikely landing place, even if it's only a temporary one. It's an upscale lounge of a place, with a clubby nighttime scene, a forbidding bouncer at the host stand, and fez-like table lamps. But for the moment, at least, it is slinging some of the best pizza in the city.
   The chewy, puffy perimeters, intermittently blistered and tasting lightly of salt, give way to thin, crunchy centers. Toppings are sparely applied — in one, a smear of sauce that tastes of pureed fresh tomatoes, several creamy discs of mozzarella, and a few leaves of basil; in another, a few soft-textured meatballs, and a scattering of garlic slices. … 

  … I caught up with two good friends for dinner recently at the two-month-old Marrakesh (8301 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-608-8740), where a la carte does not exist and a prix fixe menu is the only option. 7 courses for $29, the manager informed us. We decided we were game, and settled in on the low-slung sofas for a nearly 3-hour meal — the first two-and-a-quarter hours of which, we were the only diners in the restaurant.
   The food had its moments, but ultimately this was less about seeking transcendence and more about finding transport. Unwinding in a dimly-lit, fan-cooled room strewn with goat-skin lamps, embroidered rugs and wooden carvings, we felt as if we'd journeyed far and long from home.
   After the first course, a tasty vegetable platter that came with doughy, generic bread, we were instructed to eat with our hands, at one point tearing off bits of a freshly deposited spiced half-chicken, served piping hot, under the manager's watchful eye.
   Seven courses is a lot at any meal that is not a fashionable procession of spoon-sized bites, and if a diner wants to make it through to the end he has to pace himself, but in this instance I cut short my eating too early. Course 6 was the fruit course. I anticipated trays of dried apricots and sugared dates. Out came a basket of apples and bananas. After being commanded to eat with our fingers, it struck me as odd in the extreme that the commitment to traditionalism had here been so blithely dismissed. Course 7 was baklava, presented in individual, bite-sized portions, and served with mint tea. Poured, according to tradition, from on high — the long, thin stream aerating as it touched bottom in our tall, clear glasses. …
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Bal Harbour, Fl
I've heard a lot of noise about ROUGE 24. Other than it's abundance of courses, what did you think about it?

You mean Rogue 24.

Rouge 24 — sounds like a foundation color.

I haven't been yet. I went up to NY some months back to do a preview of the place when it was debuting at a pop-up restaurant up there called LTO. I wasn't taken by it, but of course that was opening night in a strange space and without the setting and staff that the restaurant has here.

in most cases, just an FYI — I give a place a little bit to settle in before swinging by for lunch or dinner. So stay tuned …

Graffiato, cont’d

Hi Todd,

I wrote in about the pushiness I experienced by ONE waiter (not waiters 🙂 at Graffiato last week. After reading that another chatter had an entirely different experience, I checked out the reviews on Yelp. Turns out that several other Graffiato diners have experienced the same "pushy" issue that I have, so I believe there are some mgt policies in place.

That said, mgt there should simply take note of this as having the potential to ruin a diner's experience, and change their methods.

I believe your forum serves as an avenue for restaurants to learn what's wrong/right at their establishment and improve. All else about the venue (for me) was great. Like I wrote previously, everything I ordered was "solid".

And in response to the other chatter, I repeat, I do not like nutella, which is why I didn't order the cookies. Pushy chatter and pushy waiter…insert smiley face.

Thanks for chiming in again …

Pushiness has many manifestations.

The constant asking to clear plates is one that drives me and my friends and family crazy. Are we alone here? 

Still working? Still working? Still working …

Beyond the fact that I hate that phrase — does management really believe that a good meal is something to be worked at? — I hate the hovering, the asking, the neediness to snatch my and others plates.

Seriously: does anyone else out there dislike this as much as I do? I am not exaggerating in saying this, that it greatly diminishes my dining experience to have to fend off servers who want my plate. And even just to have to answer that awful question.

Shaw
Is Jack Rose fully open yet or are they only using the rooftop?

It's not fully open yet.

Still a ways away from that, I'm told.

I spoke just last night with Harvey Fry, the local Scotch collector and obsessive I profiled recently for the magazine. (You can read that piece here, if you're interested.) A good bit of Harvey's massive collection (estimates range from 6,500 – 9,000 bottles) is going — and has already gone — into the stock at Jack Rose.

Fry is back home after a long stint at Sibley Hospital, where, when I visited him a couple weeks ago, he was giving the nurses hell.

He was also quick to flash copies of the magazine, believing that his recent celebrity would bring him good medical care. Who could blame him, as bad as hospitals have become — I'd try anything in my bag of tricks, too.

Brad, DC
I need a fantastic place to go out for dinner around Farragut North or even Dupont Circle. I'm talking big time awesome food. Thank you good sir

"Big-time awesome," huh?

I can't believe I just allowed myself to type those words. Even in quotation marks. …

Quick story: We were having breakfast at the house recently, and my son used that — that word,  describing something he was eating, and I felt as if I were staring at someone else's child. "Awesome." It was oddly alienating/dispiriting. I feared for the future.)

Let's see … Obelisk, on P St.? Komi, on 17th? Vidalia, on M?

Clifton, VA

have you tried Gianni's in Severn on Rt 175 down from BKK and Grace? Had a meatball and cheese sub there that was far above average. Great sauce, good meatballs and the best sub roll I have had in years. actually the perfect sub roll. Crusty and moist on the inside with some taste. Opposite of the cardboard b rolls served at Subway next door.

the pizza – Great crust, incredible pepperoni, very good cheese and sauce. Better then 2 Amy's by far and the old Pupetella could learn a few things.

Hey, now that you're out in the world again, Clifton, you're coming through with some nice little tips.

Thanks.

I wonder: Is the quality of the pizza diminished any for you by the fact that you're obliged to eat it in an unrepentantly socialist, hostile-to-the-second-amendment-as-you-define-it state? ; )

U Street, WDC

Todd,

I LOVE LOVE LOVE raw oysters…. so, when my friend told me about the $1 all night raw oyster HH at Black Byrd, it was a no brainer. I went on a Monday night around 7:30pm with a friend and it was EXTREEMLY quiet there….

I initially thought it was not opened until I saw a few body moving inside!! Service was poor.. it took our guy FOREVER to get us our drinks and oysters. When he dropped off the two dozens of assorted raw oysters, he went away without telling us where the oysters were from!

The worst was the dinner rolls! It was served in a cloth napkin in a bread basket. Guess what? They were STONE COLD!! HORROR!!! They were so hard and cold that I think if I had thrown it at someone on the street I'd for sure be arrested for inflicting bodily harm!! And please… give me a good explanation for wrapping frozen COLD dinner rolls in a napkin. Don't you do that because you want to keep the bread warm??? Honestly, why would ANY respectable restaurants serve cold dinner rolls???

well… the oysters was pretty good and we ended up ordering another dozen. Where do you go for raw oysters?

I know I repeat myself a lot here, but I honestly don't think there's a better place to go than the Old Ebbitt Grill, on 15th St. downtown, when you're in the mood to slurp down a couple or more platters.

It's also very consistent. 

Best times to go? 3 p.m.-6 p.m. and 11 p.m.-1 a.m., weekdays. That's when you can get them half-price. Great, great deal.

Bethesda, MD

Hi Todd,

I just moved to the area from Charlottesville, VA, and am already missing that great food and wine scene. I was thrilled to discover these weekly chats, though!

I'm hoping you could help me find a good wine shop or two in the DC area.

I'd like one that has good variety and regular tastings, that sells interesting wines at good price points, and at which the employees are knowledgeable and willing to work with you.

I especially want a place where I won't be condescended to for seeking out inexpensive bottles–I love drinking and learning about wine, but I'm on a student budget!

Thanks so much.

Hey, I'm glad you found us here, and hope you'll become a regular — sharing your stories and tips and chiming in to the various debates we get into …

This is a great city for wine shops, but I know exactly what you mean when you say you don't want to be condescended to. "Condescended to" may not even be the right phrase to describe what you mean. I've been to some of the excellent shops in the city and felt that the service was less than enthusiastic and eager when I gave the man — it's often a man — my budget for spending. I don't think it always has to do with pushing stock; I think sometimes it's just that wine pros are not that enamored of cheaper wines, and think it's beneath them to get excited about something that's not "truly great." Still, it shouldn't matter. I tend not to patronize those places regularly, even if I think their selection is outstanding.

If I were you, I'd look into three places.

One is a surprise — Rodman's Drug Store. Believe it. There's a good one on Wisconsin Ave. in Tenleytown. The wine buyers there are knowledgeable, the selection is pretty good, and there's a range of prices to choose from.

The other two are Weygandt Wines, on Connecticut Ave. in Cleveland Park, and Paul's, on Wisconsin Ave. in Chevy Chase. Knowledgeable staffs, and in my experience, none of the standoffishness or snobbery you hinted at. And I like their selections — not just the range of varietals, but also the range of prices.

Cleveland Park
Have you had a chance to try the newly opened Bistro Le Zinc?

Maybe. : )

I will no doubt have a longer answer for you in the next week or two …

Cheverly, MD

We're off to one of my favorite eating cities to eat (well…um, I mean work) soon. Any suggestions for Santa Fe dining?

We're only there for 3 days so we probably won't venture far from New Mexican cuisine (especially living in DC where this is one cuisine we really can't get a good version of), but we are open to any suggestions you or the choggers have.

What's tasty nowadays in Santa Fe?

I wish I could help you out, Cheverly, but unfortunately I'm not up to date on the scene there.

Choggers?

Restaurant Week

How do you feel about it?

I've pretty much given up and here's why – my husband and I generally split an app, get an entree each, and skip desert (or on occasion, split one). So we don't normally spend much more than $30 per person for food.

Given that, what restaurants do you think would make it worth it for us? Oh, and I don't eat meat. We have reservations for Rasika (which we've been to and love), but even there I feel like it might be better to just go on a non-RR week night. Thanks!

In your case, yeah, I agree — it doesn't make a lot of sense.

It's become a pretty expensive promotion, at least at dinner — $35.11 per person for three courses. I think Restaurant Week at lunch is still a good deal — $20.11.

There are a number of places where I think RW makes sense at dinner, and one of those is Adour. The quality of the saucing, the grace of the service, the little gifts that the kitchen sends out at the start and at the finish — all make it a good value, even at the inflated RW dinner price.

One other thing that you'll be interested to know is that Adour is one of the best destinations in the city if you're looking to focus more on fish than meat.

Another place I'd look into for RW is Oval Room.

NWDC
Wine shop – Try Schneider's on Capitol Hill. I always get great suggestions there no matter what budget I give them.

Schneider's is good. Agreed.

I do think, however, that the other spots are better for novice drinkers, just starting out.

For the same reason I wouldn't recommend the equally good MacArthur Beverages or Pearson's to someone who is looking to explore and learn what he likes and doesn't and who doesn't want to spend a whole lot in the process. And who doesn't want to get inundated with a lot of arcane wine talk.

Clearing Plates

I second that one!!!!

I like to finish my plate at a restaurant, and my husband is usually done before me. I've been in so many embarrassing situations when the waiter takes my plate w/out asking, and I ask for it back….hey, I paid for a $15 burrata and I'm sure as hell going to eat it!

At least twice a week it happens to me, or someone in my party.

And as I say, no one I regularly go out to eat with likes this. But who knows, maybe we're the aberrations here, and the vast majority of you find nothing at all wrong with waiters behaving like snipers and snatching plates from the table the moment you lean back from a plate of half-eaten food.

Last week I had a wine glass taken from me with at least three sips still remaining in the glass. Why? Is a mostly empty glass taking up space on the table that offensive a sight to most diners? What is this Lady Macbeth-like frenzy to clean, clean, clean?

I wish it would end.

And I wish I never had to hear "Are you still working on that?" ever again.

Washington, DC

Todd,

Question for you… A few weeks ago, my friends took me to dinner at a "Exceedingly Popular Because We Were Featured on Food Network" restaurant for my birthday.

Unbeknownst to me, one of my friends mentioned this fact to our waitperson and asked if anything can be brought over. He said yes and, at the appropriate time, he brought over a slice of delicious cake with a candle. Lovely, yes? It was… until the bill came and there was a $10 charge for the cake.

I don't think it was fair for them to bill us when 1) no charge was mentioned when she inquired (I think that's, at a minimum, what should've been done so we weren't blindsided) and 2) we had a tab of $400+ (that wouldn't warrant a lower charge, at least?)…

Todd, I HATE expecting free things for birthdays… It's tacky. So that's not what I'm asking for here… However, this isn't sitting with us well… Thoughts?

It's not sitting well with me, and I wasn't the one stuck with the bill.

It's beyond tacky.

It's greedy. It's cunning. It's deplorable.

I really wish you would name names, here. I think the restaurant deserves to be exposed for this.

And now we're all dying to know who … ; )

Logan
Regarding wine stores: what are your thoughts on the mammoth Calvert Woodley?

I like the selection.

But when I go, I go in search of a bottle I already know about. I don't go with the idea that someone on staff will assist me. It may just be me, but I just don't see it as that kind of place.

Charging for Bread?

Hi Todd,

What's your take on charging for a bread basket?

I recently went to Birch and Barley, and had one of the most amazing, complimentary bread baskets. Went to Graffiato the week before and was charged for what I considered a good, but mediocre basket in comparison to Birch. Is charging for bread becoming the trend now?

It is. Expect to see it more and more at a certain level of restaurant.

These are cost-cutting times, and bread doesn't come cheap. And, say managers, most people don't eat the contents of the baskets anyway.

I had that bread basket at Graffiato and liked it. I didn't like the 5-buck charge. And I really didn't like not being told about it in advance. 

Do restaurateurs realize how it makes them look when they charge for bread? Even if it's a really tricked-out basket, like the one at Graffiato with its olive oil gelee and whipped ricotta, it looks stinting. I mean, it's bread.

But unfortunately, this is where we are right now. Chefs are so, so determined not to raise the costs on entrees — so determined to keep their dishes around $22-$24 — that you wind up with things like $5 bread baskets and $16 glasses of wine. It's comical.

RR Week
Now, if only they'd throw in a glass of wine (or a special RR week cocktail…) for your $35.11, that might be worth it.

Oh, no question.

Then again, it'd probably be listed on the menu as "house red" or "house white."

Wine Shop
Burka's Wine on the corner of Wisconsin & Idaho NW is also great. Good selection and VERY helpful service. I always find something worthwhile.

Good, under-the-radar pick.

And that's good to hear. I don't shop there often enough to know.

Gourmet Street Food

Hi, I walked by a empanada restaurant on P ST in Dupont that advertised "gourmet empanadas." It got me thinking, isn't that somewhat of a misnomer.

Empanadas weren't meant to be gourmet or have gourmet ingredients, the point was substenance quick, convenient and cheap. Further, it asks the question of what clientele they seek to attract. Tourists unfamiliar with the food but swayed by the words gourmet? Foodies (for lack of a better term) familiar with the food but seeking something different. Or people in between – those familiar with the food but like the sexed up nature of having something labeled "gourmet," in the same vein of a ping pong dim sum or georgetown cupcake.

Would you be offended by a place with gourmet empanadas? I think it's sort of the same feeling as going to a place labeled a gourmet gastropub or a gastropub with non-gastropub prices. Your thoughts?

You bring up something really interesting.

Would I be offended? I would if the empanadas were not "big-time awesome." If something billed as gourmet turns out to be a good deal less-than, then yeah, I'd be grumpy.

I recently had a plate of Buffalo chicken wings at a new, upscale restaurant. I'm of the belief that if you're an accomplished, nay, celebrated chef and you try your hand at bar food, then that bar food had better be a marked improvement on what we could all get at a neighborhood joint's happy hour. If it's not — if, in fact, it falls considerably short of that mark — well, then you look really, really pretentious.

Deliciousness trumps all, where food is concerned. If something's good — really good — then it's relatively easy to forgive all the marketing and hype and whatnot.

The word "gourmet" is slung around a lot where it has no right to be. We are constantly being told sandwiches are gourmet — to the point that the word has become devalued. What's a "gourmet" sandwich anyway? A sandwich with arugula on it?

When was the last time you ate a sandwich billed as "gourmet" and discovered, to your surprise and joy, that the bread was artisanal bread, fresh from the hearth? And that the cheese came from a local farm and had been cared for properly and served at the right temperature? And that the mayonnaise had been made from scratch?

… Lunch calls.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

 

NoLo, DC
This ‘n that:
a) I really hoped that the chogger who wrote that they’d juts moved here from c’ville was going to write something like “I was wondering if there was any good Chinese food in town; I’d been getting pretty good stuff from some place named after Peter Wang or something down there”

b) The $10 birthday cake…from the way it was written, the friend of the writer explicitly asked for something to be brought over. I give the restaurant a little bit of a pass

c) I was brought up — for better or worse — to know where on my plate to put my fork and knife while they’re still in use versus when I’ve completed my meal. Even if not everybody was raised in an Emily-Post-Compliant home, it would be nice if waitstaff knew these things and acted accordingly.

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