Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 11 AM

Todd Kliman offers his quick take of five places, shares his picks for great wings, and offers his strategies for dining in other cities.

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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   F i r s t   I m p r e s s i o n s  . . .

   … Another trip to Graffiato (707 6th St. NW; 202-289-3600), this time for a slew of pizzas. I loved the flavors of the Countryman (fontina, truffles, duck egg), and loved that the server split the soft, jiggling egg and distributed its yolk to make a sauce. But the pie became far too dry far too soon. No such problem for The Forager (mushrooms, goat cheese, dates), though the sweetness of the dates is too pronounced. This was my second time trying the Jersey Shore (fried calamari, tomato, provolone, cherry pepper aioli); I loved it the first time, couldn’t get over the mix of ingredients (provolone instead of mozzarella, fried calamari instead of clams), and marveled for days afterward that it ought not to have worked, but did, and wondrously. This time out, it was merely very good, with robust, spicy flavors that, as before, summoned up a bowl of zesty seafood soup. …

   … Main Ingredient Cafe (914 Bay Ridge Rd # 5, Annapolis; 410-626-0388) is a nice place to stop when you can’t abide the thought of a chain meal but don’t want to spring for something more fancy. It looks and acts like a diner (pies and cakes in a lighted case, crusty but attentive servers, a menu that has something for everyone), but the cooking’s better. And better than it needs to be. A stellar grilled cheese (with mozzarella and cheddar), a sesame-crusted tuna salad that’s better than similar versions I’ve eaten in downtown DC at lunchtime, and a Buffalo chicken wrap (with crunchy, not-greasy fried chicken and thick crumbles of Gorgonzola) that’s hard to put down, even when you’re already full and know you ought to. …

   … It’d be easy to walk past SUNdeVITCH (1314 9th St., NW; 202-319-1086) without knowing it. It’s in an alley off 9th St. (next door to the three-day-a-week restaurant Seasonal Pantry), and looks onto another alley. The name alone is worthy of praise (say it slowly, emphasizing each syllable, and see if you don’t feel as if you were prepared to walk around the Lower East Side, circa 1930). But the two-table shop doesn’t appear to trade on novelty. There’s real thought and care, here, in the sandwich-making. Owner Ali Bagheri sources high-quality local meats and produce, and good, fresh baguettes are the foundation for all the sandwiches. I really liked the Athens, with hunks of high-quality lamb, housemade tzaziki, onion and mint, and loved the Istanbul, with ground beef and ground lamb (fashioned into a loose sort of sausage), and given the same Middle Eastern treatment. …

   … I can’t say that I loved Salt & Pepper Restaurant (5125 Macarthur Blvd., NW; 202-506-6785), which replaces Kimble Tavern (which replaced Starland Cafe) and seems to have endeared itself to residents of Palisades, who are forever carping about the quality and quantity of restaurants in their midst. But put me down at this point for a definite like. Salt & Pepper is a promising place that with more time, and more refinement, could well grow into something more than just a neighborhood destination. I loved the cheery color scheme, loved the attentive, always-smiling service, loved the energy in the room even on a mid-week night, and loved the inclusion of DC Brau alongside other, more expected boutique beers. Most of all I loved the crabcakes — the menu bills them as “Second Place Crab Cakes,” a curious downgrade that, paradoxically, makes you have to have them. They’re beautifully made and perfectly seasoned, and paired smartly with pickled ramps and warm grits. I liked my pan-roasted cod, too — though I would have liked to have seen a little more crisping of its edges, and the flavors of the accompanying lobster hash were muddled. The starters, this night, were the weaknesses — a too-busy gazpacho that tasted more of India than Spain, and a Caesar that except for its anchovies was forgettable. …

   … Mazadar Kabob (11725 Lee Hwy., Fairfax; 571-432-0101) would not be my first choice for getting a skewer of bone-in chicken or minced beef. Unless I wanted to eat that skewer in a posher setting than the bare-bones, fluorescent-lit rooms most kabob houses offer up. Tinkling fountain, plush banquettes with pillows, sparkling tiled floors — Mazadar puts you in the mind of the kind of place where young women in tight dresses push food around on their plates and pretend to eat, while their over-groomed dates keep the drinks coming. My kubideh was stintingly spiced and more tough than juicy, but the rice was exceptional — exquisitely steamed grains of buttered basmati that retained their individuality through the duration of the meal. It sounds crazy to say it, but I’d make the trip out again just to have that rice. …

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Falls Church, VA

Re: the chatter last week looking for wine shops. I have to give a shoutout to Red White & Bleu.

Small place (which I like because I find the really big shops overwhelming), reasonable, well curated, and a really helpful group of owners. They have generous free tastings throughout the weekend.

And since they have a pretty good cheese selection too, I’ve found myself making a pilgrimage to “Cheesetique” less and less often.

Good to know about. Thanks for the tip!

Good morning, everyone.

I’m looking forward to hearing all about the places you’ve been eating, and the various discoveries you’ve made.

And I’m also interested in following up on something that came up in last week’s chat — well, several somethings.

First: What do you want in a server? I expressed a preference, generally, for servers who exhibit some personality and try to individualize the experience for me and my table. I know that’s not to everyone’s liking — I hear a lot about overchatty servers, which, I think, is a different thing entirely — but I’m curious to hear what it is you look for when you go out to eat. What’s your ideal?

Second: Where do you all come down on the question of plate-clearing? Do you like to keep your plate even if it’s mostly done, as I and many of my friends do (the pleasure of picking even after you’re done; the feeling of happy clutter it creates, replicating a meal at a crowded dining room table; the demonstration of respect for a slower fellow diner). Or do you prefer to have it whisked away as soon as you’re done your last bite?

Third: Do you dislike “Are you still working on that?” And if so, how much? What do you suggest to replace it?

Mt. Pleasant, DC

Regarding restaurants in Santa Fe, from last week …

I was there for a conference in July. My husband and I had a lovely dinner at “Dinner for Two” — easy walk from the historical center.

We also had a wonderful dinner at the “Anasazi Restaurant” in the Inn of the Anasazi. It is right in the central historical area.

Both of these were very accommodating for food allergies. In both places the servers knew what was in the food, they didn’t need to ask the kitchen.

Thanks for writing in …

I hope the chogger who asked hasn’t left town yet …

Columbia Heights, DC

Todd –

Last week you mentioned how you got Buffalo wings an a new, upscale place but were not happy with them. Care to share where you were dining?

My friends call me the “Queen of Wings” because I love them and usually order them wherever I go, where do you think the best wings are in DC proper? Don’t laugh, but I have to say after all of the places I’ve ordered wings, the best are still at Wonderland Ballroom. No frills, just good old fried wings in a nice and spicy buffalo sauce. Sometimes it’s just better not to mess with a classic.

I had them at America Eats Tavern, the new “pop-up,” or temporary, restaurant from Jose Andres. It replaces, for the time being, Cafe Atlantico.

I agree with you. All these chefs who try their hand at happy hour snacks, bar food, fast food — fine; that’s fun. But the dishes have got to be better than what you can get for 1/8th the price. Not better because the ingredients are better. Not better because the techniques employed are superior. Not better because they’ve been conceptually tweaked, making them different, and, presumably, better. No: better.

Who has good ones?

I haven’t seen a lot of good Buffalo wings, but good wings, sure. Comet has good ones. Bon Chon Chicken has good ones. Johnny’s Half Shell. Austin Grlll is a shadow of what it used to be, but the wings can be good. Hard Times Cafe’s wings can be good, too. … What else? What’s missing?

The last Buffalo wings I ate were back in mid-winter, smack in the midst of Wizards season at, forgive me, Hooter’s. Do I need to hand in my food critic’s badge?

(I didn’t say I liked them.)

Washington, DC

Hi Todd,

There seem to be a zillion Italian restaurants in Georgetown. Are any of them worth a visit?

The one I’d sort-of recommend is Il Canale

The pizza’s really pretty good, some of the salads and appetizers are worthwhile, and it’s nice to sit on the roof deck. But I dislike the attitude there.

It might not be a problem for you, who knows? Some people have a higher threshhold for attitude.

Clean plates

Personally, I like to keep my plate (however clean or not) in front of my until I’m ready to eat dessert or leave. Something about sitting at a table with nothing feels off.

Maybe it’s me trying to make the meal last as long as possible; maybe it’s the satisfaction of going back one last time for that sauce.

So, to all you waitstaff: It’s not inconveniencing me to have a clean plate in front of me.

And when you ask if you can clear my plate, well, at that point I can’t really say “no”. Just my two cents…

I like your two cents. Thanks for chiming in …

I think it feels off, too. Unless I’m at a place like Citronelle or CityZen or Marcel’s, where you’re dining in courses and things need to be paced and the table needs to be prepared for the next thing.

Most of the time, it just feels intrusive, and I think that’s because a tension arises. The staff HAS to have that plate, and I, the diner, am prepared to hold on to it until the end of my meal. So what happens? “Are you still working?” — over and over and over again …

Who else has got an opinion on this?

Clifton, VA

Todd,

Where can I find the best open faced hot turkey sandwich with gravy, mashed potatoes and veggies? Did you read about the busts at the Eden Center?

No; I missed that.

Thanks for the heads-up. Wow. Here’s a good piece I just read about the busts from the Falls Church Times — click here.

I’m surprised by the extent of the bust. But I can’t say I’m entirely surprised — or, no, sorry: shocked, SHOCKED — by the gambling going on there.

I know of at least one family-owned restaurant there that was involved in something … not clean.

It’s not uncommon to find family members sitting around the table, shelling beans, etc., when a place isn’t busy. It is not so common to find family members … bundling.

Wait; you asked about hot open-faced turkey sandwiches. Nothing’s coming to mind. Anyone?

What connotations do you have when you hear “awesome” …

Todd,

When I first read that on your chat last week — well, it gave me pause. I stopped short, honestly.

It’s funny how a word can have a reputation or connotation and awesome is one of those words, at least for me. It’s one of those words I kicked out of my vocabulary a long time ago.

I do like to pull it out every now and then, for fun.

What about “smite” or, past tense — “smote.”

Great words. They need to be more a part of the contemporary lexicon.

They go particularly well with “awesome.”

Takoma Park, MD

Thanks so much for recommending Montmartre for our anniversary-on-a-budget dinner.

My husband and I have been to Paris together twice, once as part of our honeymoon, so a French bistro was the perfect setting for a celebration.

Everything we ate was fantastic (escargot, chickpea/avocado salad, skirt steak, and scallops – too full for dessert, though I know it was a crime to skip it).

We were also surprised by how large the portions were for the price tag. Thanks again!

That’s great — I’m so glad to hear how well it turned out! Thanks for taking a moment to drop a quick note.

Yes, the portions are pretty big, especially these days when so, so, so many places are shrinking theirs. I think Montmartre is one of the best values in the city.

I was just thinking about the question of value yesterday, actually. How being a “good value” is not a trait that a lot of the places in DC seem to, well — value.

It’s not just at the top. It’s the casual places, too. Like Big Bear Cafe, in Bloomingdale. A sandwich of runny, thinly applied hummus with some greens, served on multigrain bread, costs $6.95. Get that with a coffee, and you’re paying over ten bucks.

I get that you’re renting a table when you eat there — it’s a small village of laptops. But still. It seems to me to be about a couple of bucks off of what it should be.

Shaw DC

All I want in a server is for he/she to not act like they are offended by my presence and that he/she is doing me a favor my taking my order with a surly attitude.

But I haven’t had that experience in a long time, in fact, the last time I had that experience that I can recall was at Central when it first opened. The waiter was a down-right a******. And this wasn’t opening night, this was at least 3 months after opening. But I love the food and continue to dine the bar quite often and everyone is lovely and professional. And I haven’t seen that particular waiter in a long time.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I finally got to try Graffiato last week and obviously the food was amazing (sweet corn agnolotti, bone marrow, the aforementioned Jersey Shore pizza, I could cry just thinking about it) and our server was incredibly busy but was the epitome of grace under pressure. I recall that her name was Morgan; she was chatty and playful when we asked questions, on top of our cocktails and wine, and whisked away our plates as if she was reading our minds.

Second topic: plate clearing. I guess it depends on what and where I’m eating. I would prefer at a tapas/small plate place for the plates to be removed as they are empty. But if I’m at a more refined place and the apps/entrees are served at the same time, then they should be cleared at the same time. If it’s unclear, a simple “May I take that for you?” will suffice. That’s my two cents for the day!

Yes, yes, yes, all around … !

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on all of this, Shaw.

Tapas, for sure, is a different sort of meal, and plate-clearing there — or with mezze, or any other small plates format — has to be frequent and fast.

Capitol Hill, DC

Hi Todd!

I’m leaving for my honeymoon in Paris the weekend and wondered if you had any tips for me. Suggestions for foods/places to eat would be wonderful, but I’m also interested in your ideas about *how* to eat. When you’re in a fantastic food city, do you go for breadth or depth? Is there a particular strategy you use for making the most of the cuisine?

You’re in for a ball.

It’s just a great city for eating. Eating and walking. Do that, and nothing more, and you’ll come home happy. The cheese shops, the bakeries, the cafes, the grand old-guard restaurants, the energetic newcomers … there’s just a lot to tempt you. Some of my favorites: La Regalade. Le Christine. Senderan for lunch. La Quincave. Le Comptoir. Frenchie.

Have a great time …

I wouldn’t say I have any real strategy when I visit a city like this — just some core principles.

One is to make lunch your big meal of the day. Usually it’s cheaper, and you can do a lot of indulging knowing that you’re going to be burning off the calories in the afternoon and evening. If a restaurant’s any good, it takes lunch as seriously as dinner.

Nighttime in a city like Paris is for hitting a bistro for an aperitif and people-watching, then wandering down the block a couple of hours later to chow on a pot of mussels somewhere (soaking up the broth with a crusty baguette) — washing it all down with a crisp white wine.

I also tend to privilege appetizers over entrees when I travel. So if I’m with my wife, say, we’ll typically go for 3 or 4 appetizers and 1 entree.

Finally, I like to have a structure for my dining, but not so strict a structure that I squeeze all the joy out of it. That means, generally, planning meals at more elegant, hard-to-get-in restaurants, and maybe a popular bistro, but leaving ample room for wandering, which is everything in a city like Paris. Say you find yourself in an arrondissement you hadn’t expected to end up in — if you’re with me, you go with the moment, and eat there, rather than huffing it back to your hotel and your reservation. That sort of thing.

Wings

Ba Bay’s chili glazed wings. Not classic Buffalo style, but great Asian flavor and heat.

Yes. Outstanding.

A plate of those, a bowl of the housemade pho, one of the Vietnamese milkshakes, and I leave happy …

thanks

Thanks for using the time and effort to write something so interesting.

How random! How wonderful!

Thank you …

Graffiato

My Wife and I had a wonderful meal at Graffiato and the only negative was the pizza. We did the tasting menu and were served asparagus and date pizza, which was a horrible combimation and we agree with you that the dates were too sweet for the pizza.

Our server noticed that we were not too fond of that combination and instead provided us with an extra dessert to end our meal.

Thanks, and love the weekly chat!

Other than a conceptual problem here and there, I think it’s just a matter of inconsistency with the pizzas. I’ve had truly great; I’ve had okay.

The pace there is very, very fast, and the atmosphere is very, very pumped up, and they’re having problems with certain things as a result, I think — salting, among them. Sometimes too, sometimes not enough.

 

Bethesda, MD

Hi Todd-

I know this is a little broader in scope than your typical question, but I am hoping you are up for the challenge because I really need your help!! My husband and I have the opportunity to have a night out in DC and there are so many new places that we have been wanting to get to, we are trying to strategize how to have the most fun possible in one night.

So our current thinking is one of two options: stay at the Helix hotel and hit the u street area hot spots. Say cork for a drink, then estadio for dinner, then patty boom boom and or/standard later.

Or stay at the Palomar and hit dupont- thinking eighteenth street lounge for later, not as sure about happy hour and dinner in this area. So what would be your recommendation either between those two or a whole new itinerary?

Where would you send two 30-somethings looking for a fun night out. We need help! Thanks so much!!

It’s a fun-sounding plan. I love it.

I think option 1 is the better option, but I’ve got a small twist. Cork for a glass of wine to start out, then a couple of small bites at Bar Pilar, and then Estadio for dinner. Finally: Patty Boom Boom for a carry-out patty — your midnight snack.

servers, clearing, etc …

First: What do you want in a server? – No name please. Focus on competent service first. If this leads to a degree of informality and rapport, great. Otherwise, keep it strictly business.

Second: Plate-clearing? Whatever happened to placing your utensils side by side as an indication to ask to have my plate removed. Can’t stand having my last few bites or sips taken away. Makes me feel gluttonous to have to take it back (which leads to a bad tip).

Third: “Are you still working on that?” Kill me now. Replacements: “Shall I clear the table?” or “Would you like me to remove your plate” (Solves item 2 as well.)

I appreciate your thoughts on all of this …

One thing that jumped out at me is the phrase “keep it strictly business.” I know many people desire a server to stay out of the way and be a sort of unseen presence, if you will, but if it’s not a business meal and you’re out to have a good time and it’s not a special occasion — do you really want it to be a “strictly business” sort of encounter?

No names? I can see that. And it’s often hard for people to remember the server’s name halfway through, anyway.

But I would think that having someone with a real presence, a real personality, would be a real plus at the table, no?

Fairfax VA

I think the best pizza in the area belongs to Pete’s New Haven. Chewy yet crunchy crust, great toppings (clam is amazing).

It’s definitely up there.

The clam can be really, really good. I’ve also had it be only pretty, pretty good.

Eastern Market

Parents in town, visiting us at our new house and in our new neighborhood (E Market) for the first time.

Still figuring out all the new places around, but haven’t found a favorite yet (except for Montmarte which we discovered years ago). Where should we take our parents to show of the best of the neighborhood?

Not too loud, not too expensive.

Thanks!

Take them to Zest Bistro.

Or Cava.

Both on Barracks Row, both decently priced, both tasty … Just depends, really, on what sort of food they gravitate to. And what sort of style meal they’d prefer. Cava is Greek, and the format is mostly mezze — i.e., small plates. Zest is eclectic American, and more conventionally presented — appetizers and salads, entrees, desserts.

Shaw, DC

I agree with the Hard Times call for wings… I’d also add Duffy’s and mention the smoked wings at Hill Country as well.

This town doesn’t seem to do ‘classic bar food’ particularly well. Wings and nachos shouldn’t be destination food, but they’re hard to find done properly in DC!

It’s true.

I wish there were more places — more unselfconscious spots — doing good wings.

(Just thought of one more: DaMoim, in Koreatown, in Annandale. Free-range birds, cooked to order. …)

Having said that, I actually think this is where a chef’s training can be put to really good use — better use, certainly, than cranking out french fries.

Take a wing, and make it better.

Give us a good-quality bird, and make it juicier than we expect, and crunchier than we expect, and drench them in a killer sauce that brings the heat but not just the heat — brings tang, too, and depth, and maybe unexpected hits of citrus.

Why not?

Plate clearing

Regardless of the establishment, dishes should be cleared as soon as all parties are finished, especially if they are completely empty. There is almost nothing worse than spending significant time with a dirty plate.

As far as plates with food remaining, servers should be able to monitor progress and be able to tell when everyone in the party is done. Usually it is pretty obvious.

But what if everybody at the table wants to keep his or her plate? Then what?

Is that against the rules?

What you consider “spending significant time with a dirty plate,” I — and others I know — don’t consider in those terms at all. Especially not as consorting with something “dirty.” We consider it in terms of “comfort” and “familiarity.”

Rockville, MD

Todd,

Thank you for hosting these chats.

I am a convert of Rays, thanks to a great dinner I had there recently. Everything was really great, except for one crucial element: The steaks were a degree lower than what we had ordered.

Two medium steaks came out as medium rare, a medium-well steak came out as medium, and a medium-rare steak was kinda blue. The meat was still fantastic, and it didn’t really detract from the dinner (though it was the centerpiece of it), but I was left with this question: Should I speak up and ask the meat to be done more, or should we just be quiet about it?

I don’t usually send food back, and I don’t go to steakhouses a lot, but I do know what temps mean for steaks, and I’m hoping you could tell me what I should do for future visits. Our server was very nice, but MIA for good parts of the meal- it would’ve been tough to flag her down anyway, I guess.

Speaking up’s tough, I know.

You don’t want to rock the boat. You also don’t want to sully the mood. But if you can stand the confrontation, then just ask the server over and point toward the center of the steak and say, “I ordered such-and-such. This looks rare to me.”

That’s not stepping out of line, and I also don’t think it’s mood-altering, either.

If the server has had any training — here, or anywhere else — he or she will remove it and take it back to the kitchen. Most likely the steak will be replaced, and you will get the meal you asked for.

dim sum

The eden center busts post (strangely) got me thinking about making my first visit to NoVa for dim sum.

I have wanted to go for years, but always seem to forget about it or not really know what the best place to try is. What do you think would be the best place for a casual dim sum eater to try in VA?

I used to live in Bethesda, and loved going up to A & J, but I live in DC now, and it seems so much easier to just jump on the highway and go south now. I would be willing to drive out up to an hour if it is REALLY going to be worth it. Any thoughts?

That’s funny, the way the mind works sometimes …

China Garden in Rosslyn, and Fortune in Falls Church — both for Hong Kong-style (southern-style) dim sum. And A&J in Annandale for northern-style.

I prefer A&J to the former two. Not because I prefer that style, but because I think it’s a better restaurant.

Best dim sum I’ve had in a long while has been at Red Pearl, in Columbia. Worth a drive. Not for the weekend dim sum, mind you — forgo the rolling carts. Go for the nighttime dim sum, ordered off the menu. Terrific stuff. Excellent har gow and char siu bao, in particular.

… By the way, I’ve passed hungry and am in sight of ravenous …

Time to grab some lunch.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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