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 H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
Sichuan Pavilion, Rockville
This Rockville restaurant serves up a dazzling demonstration of the range and depth of Szechuan cooking — not merely its scorching heat, but also its great pungency. One of the best Chinese restaurants in the area. Get the flounder with green onions and pickled cabbage — a knockout dish.
I like the new look — the Cleveland Park restaurant and bar now share the same clattering (and sometimes thunderous) space. I like the new, tap-into-the-Zeitgeist menu of small plates even more. Don’t miss the south-of-the-border chicken soup and the pasta Bolognese. A terrific wine list (with half pours available of many bottles) and terrific desserts are bonuses.
La Limeña, Rockville
Lately I find myself with inexplicable cravings for Peruvian, and this Rockville restaurant — newly updated, with china and silverware replacing plastic plates and knives — is where I head … for great food (tiradito, ceviche, anticuchos, aji de gallina, alfajores) and great value.
Ruan Thai, Wheaton
Another renovation job — the once-tiny dining room is now a spacious, subtly stylish oasis, thanks to the tearing down of the wall next door and a new design. But the food at this Wheaton restaurant has always been fantastic — easily, a Top 5 destination for Thai in the area. The must-order is the superlative yum watercress salad, a masterpiece of frying.
Jewel of India, Silver Spring
For anyone whose palate has been numbed by too many tepid meals at the neighborhood curry joint, this two-month-old restaurant in White Oak’s Hillandale Shopping Center is the antidote. The gravies are wonderfully complex — rich, robustly spiced, and with a depth that lingers long after the last bite. Superb versions of dal, malai kofta and bhindi masala. All in a subtly stylish setting where you can also get a pineapple caipirinha.
The best, most sensual, most fully realized restaurant in the area remains Johnny Monis’s lair of a place, a sparely appointed East Dupont townhouse with — check it — no menu.
La Caraqueña, Falls Church
From the outside, it looks like a dive — a low-slung cafe fronting a dreary Falls Church motel. But Raul Claros Ugarte’s place is just the sort of gem I always hope an unassuming locale turns out to be. Superb soups, the best saltenas and arepas in the area, good salads, and all of it so attractively presented you might think you were eating in a fashionable bistro.
The decor is a bit of a buzzkill, and the air of formality among the staff tends to get in the way of a good time (at least until the crowds arrive), but the cooking of late is a marvelous demonstration of sprezzatura, a word beloved by Italians — the ability to make a hard thing look easy.
R&R Taqueria, Elkridge
Best Mexican food in the area, and it’s not even close. And — it’s in a gas station. Worth the drive to Elkridge.
* Ripple, DC
Ex-New Heights chef Logan Cox has taken his sauce-painted bowls and jolting juxtapositions north up Connecticut Ave., making this modestly done Cleveland Park dining room one of the most intriguing places to dine at the moment. His rabbit loin transforms a typically dry, stringy meat into a kind of luscious barbecue, the mushroom risotto with poached egg is remarkable for avoiding overrichness, and his vegetable composition plate — that stale relic of the early aughts — is so good, it could stand alone as a (light) entree.
* new this week
Two weeks ago, during the weekend of the hurricane/rain storm/crazy weather thing, I went out to brunch at Tonic in Mt. Pleasant. I had the saddest serving of french toast I have ever seen.
Everyone at my table agreed. It was just pitiful. The bread was barely cooked, it was pale and sickly looking, and the dish looked paltry compared to my friends’ breakfast burritos and eggs.
Other than sending the dish back, do you think it is worthwhile to write the restaurant? I was kind of amazed that they would present such a sub-par version of a pretty easy brunch staple.
I like Tonic, so I want them to improve. What’s the best way to deal with this sort of thing?
I think the best way is to just ask the waiter over and say, “I have to tell you. This is just awful. It’s not worth the money. Can the kitchen either do it up again or maybe I just get something else?”
I know — just.
It’s not easy to say that, especially in the moment. But I think writing the manager after the fact about a single item is kind of ineffectual.
I hear all the time from restaurateurs and managers that they absolutely want their customers to come away happy. I would think that means swapping out something good for something that just was dead on arrival. I am told, again and again, that this is possible.
Of course when I put that into words and send it off onto the internet, like I am now — I hear grumblings. We can’t have people coming in and demanding a new dish if they don’t like the one they were served. Replace a perfectly fine bottle of wine? Are you nuts? Do you want to put us out of business?!
So I don’t know what they really want.
But if they are sincere in saying that they want you to come away happy, I would think replacing the bad french toast with something else is not too much of an encumbrance.
I read the full transcript on my iphone and it cuts off the right margin so i miss a lot. Can you please ask one of the techies to fix that? Thanks
It does that for me, too.
I expect that that’ll be corrected when we roll out the — ta da — new, improved website later this fall. As they say: watch this space.
With so much attention being drawn to the benefits of meat-free eating, including former Pres. Bill Clinton’s recent CNN feature about his new vegan diet, will the Washingtonian start featuring more vegetarian options available in and around DC? There is even a DC VegFest (on Sept. 24) highlighting the very best in veg dining — it’d be great to see Washingtonian get in more on the veg action!
Yeah, and not just Clinton — Steve Jobs, Steve Wynn, Russell Simmons …
It’s the latest trend to be embraced by the power crowd. Vegan Chic — who’d a thunk?
I’m interested in hearing what specifically you’d like to see us doing in this regard? What to highlight, what not to highlight? What sorts of stories, etc.
I’m looking for some really good Steak Tartare in the area. Any suggestions?
Look to the French.
Brasserie Beck, Cafe du Parc, Central Michel Richard, Bistro Bis — all of these places send out worthy versions of the dish.
One of the most memorable, however, is not French. Nor is it easily accessible. Trummer’s on Main, in Clifton, makes a superlative version, with a tiny scoop of tomato sorbet that you are sure isn’t going to work at all, but works perfectly. It’s a beautiful dish: sophisticated and smart, but not self-indulgently clever. And — delicious.
I have heard that most of the really good “ethnic” food is found in the suburbs, outside of the district. Would you agree or do you have places you would recommend within DC? Thanks!…love your responses.
Rents are too high in the city for many of the mom n pops, which is what a lot of the ethnic restaurants are.
The irony is, there are hordes of young people living and working in the city who don’t have the money to spend on dinner out in DC — $100 for two is considered reasonable these days — and yet they also don’t have cars or easy access to cars, so driving out to Virginia or Maryland to go eat becomes a project.
There’s a wealth of great eating in the inner burbs, and dinner for two typically will set you back $50 for two. Or less.
Our current issue — our Cheap Eats issue — is on newsstands now, and has a slew of great restaurant recommendations for you.
That’s not to say there aren’t good spots in the city. Ethiopic, for instance, on H St. — it’s the best Ethiopian restaurant in the city at the moment. (Get the lega tibs; probably the best dish of tibs I’ve ever eaten, anywhere.)
But a good ethnic restaurant in the city proper is as rare these days as an unmetered parking spot.
What is a vegetable composition plate, which you you say is a highlight at Ripple? Can you give us a description? Thanks.
I actually hate the term — I wish restaurants wouldn’t use it. For one thing, it sounds not at all appetizing. Composition calls to mind writing, and who, other than a critic, wants to think about writing at the table?
But what it is, is — an arrangement of vegetables, most often a very self-conscious arrangement. This isn’t just vegetables thrown, willy-nilly, onto a plate. They’re laid out like jewels.
In most cases, they’re cooked to a certain al dente-ness. More and more, a vegetable composition includes pickled things, as is the case here.
It can be very dull, a vegetable composition. It’s seldom exciting. This one’s the exception.
The sauce/dressing, here, is a goat’s yogurt punched up with cardamom. It does what a good sauce or dressing ought to — brings everything together beautifully, and unobtrusively.
If you don’t mind your steak tartare in deviled eggs, then Ray’s the Steaks would be a close and good option. That and a bowl of their crab bisque is almost good enough to be a last meal for me.
I think they’re fun.
But if I’m really craving steak tartare, I want something more straight-on and less cute, something much more full-bodied — a brawnier, more pungently seasoned dish.
That crab bisque is fantastic, isn’t it? I don’t think anyone on the Eastern Shore who grew up eating the stuff year in and year out would think that this is anything less than a loving homage to one of their cherished food traditions.
How do I become a food critic
There’s no clear path, is the short answer.
I know people who went to culinary school and worked in a restaurant or two and then moved into the world of publishing. I know people who never went to culinary school, who never worked in a restaurant as anything more than a server, and who gravitated to writing about food after writing about many other things.
I’m among the latter. Most critics I know are among the latter.
It’s a writing job, first of all — something many people looking in seem to forget. Writing comes first.
I wrote about books, politics, culture, sports, and media long before I became a food critic, and I’d like to think that that experience informs what I do and gives me a perspective. I think it’s important to situate food and restaurants in a larger context.
So my advice? Write. Write and write and write. About any and everything. If it’s food, great. If it’s not — great, too. If you want to write about food, and you’re good, and you’re not thin-skinned (more important than you think!), and you travel widely and eat widely and develop your palate, you’ll eventually — someday — find your way in.
Hard to read about Vegan chic as I’m about to bite into Bayou Bakery’s BLT.
If you’ve not had it (it’s a weekly special, not on their regular menu), think thick cut bacon, arugula, and oven roasted cherry tomatoes. Kind of life-changing for the pro-swine crowd.
Jesus, does that sound fantastic.
I love BLTs — love ’em. I wish there were more of them around this area. Personally, I’d rather eat a great BLT than a lobster roll.
Problem is, chefs like to fool with them. You can’t fool with them. The BLT is the perfect sandwich. The thing is to obey its commandments.
One thing I hate is — too-thick bread. Just ruins it. And this is what you see all too often. Big bread. Or it’ll be something like a rosemary foccaccia. Why? Why do that to the BLT?
A really juice, ripe tomato is ideal, but the truth is — you can have a good BLT without one, so long as the component parts are all good and in perfect balance. You need good, thick mayonnaise. You don’t need homemade bacon — you don’t need that kind of fanciness; what you need is for the bacon to not be too crisp. And the bread — simple toast. Homemade toast, that’s ideal. And iceberg or romaine, really crisp; none of this fly-away mache stuff.
In these recessionary times, I’d think the BLT is a win-win, as the marketeers all like to say. Cheap to make, and yet it feels comforting and even indulgent.
Chef Layrle does a very good tartare at Bezu in Potomac, but you have to ask for it. It is not on the menu.
Interesting. Why not? Do you know the answer?
Todd – headed to Philadelphia in a few weeks. Was considering Zahav or Vetri…any thoughts?
Vetri. No question.
And if you can’t get in — Osteria. In fact, I think I like Osteria even more.
A wonderful restaurant, one of the best Italian meals you’re going to find in the country. I still think about a dish of homemade rigatoni (who makes rigatoni by hand anymore?) with a rich chicken liver sauce and dark-roasted cippolinis. Amazing.
The cooking is artful, yet comes across as essentially artless — as egoless, almost tossed-off. A real achievement.
Just wanted to pass along that Michel Richard’s new restaurant in Tysons Corner has stopped serving lunch and is now only open for breakfast and dinner.
I was started to go there more for lunch, since they were offering a 3 course lunch for $20. Do you think that Chef Richard’s tysons location is in trouble of shutting down soon?
I think what it signals is, a restaurant trying to streamline what it does, put the focus where it matters most — dinner — and in this way, develop greater consistency.
Three courses for $20 — for food of that caliber — is a sure money-loser for them. It’s also surely a labor-waster, too.
A pre-made half-sandwich, a small tray of maki, and a Diet Coke at Pret a Manger costs almost $13.
I’m not surprised they ditched the offer.
Rays the Steaks or Rays the Steaks East River?
Two completely different places.
Depends on what you’re looking for. Both are good.
Ray’s the Steaks, in Arlington, is a steakhouse without the masculine sensibility, and without the power crowd embrace.
Ray’s the Steaks at East River, in Deanwood, is more like a diner. Where the Arlington restaurant aims for an unselfconscious sophistication, the East River Ray’s doesn’t attempt sophistication, unselfconscious or otherwise. It’s a place to chow, to gab, to cut loose. Portions are monstrous, prices are low, and when you’re sitting in the dining room when it’s prime time and packed you marvel that it hasn’t been around for 40 years.
Hi, Todd –
Today is my sister’s birthday and her husband and I wanted to take her out to dinner. We’re in our 20s and want something new and hip that also has delicious food. We all work in the industry and were raised by parents that are as well so we’re a bit particular in terms of setting, menu and price. We originally thought of doing the Sierra Nevada beer dinner at Ripple and haven’t ruled it out. Any ideas?
Graffiato’s another possibility.
It wears its hipness on its tattooed bicep, and the food (pastas, small plates, pizzas) is better than it probably needs to be, given the sorts of crowds it’s attracting — careful, deceptively detailed cooking.
Another one for you: Ardeo+Bardeo. The place has really transformed itself into a dining destination. A few years ago, if you had asked me to name the 150 best restaurant in the area, I probably wouldn’t have put Ardeo on the list. Today? Probably a Top 50 pick.
Drop me a note next week … I’ll be curious to hear where you landed, and how things turned out.
And happy birthday to your sister!
I was at Bayou Bakery this morning and saw them putting together that sandwich, Falls Church you are lucky!
I should have asked for one to go, they looked divine. I had their beignets though, they are really the real deal, pipping hot, crisp but tender. As normal worth the requisite layer of powder sugar that gets all over you when you eat them!
They’re great, those beignets.
My only wish is that they were cooked just a tiny bit longer. I like my roux dark, and i like my beignets dark, too. Or darker. These are blonde. I’d love an amber.
But that’s a quibble. A really small quibble.
It’s a pretty terrific place.
Re: steak tartare at Bezu …..
I had it once as a special and enjoyed it so much I ask for it when it wasn’t a special and the Chef obliged.
BTW spent a week in Paris and had it for lunch 4 times with the lady of the restaurant come out and make it on her cart. Quite an event. Loved the service.
Whoa — now that’s fandom.
I love the stuff, but can’t imagine eating it 4 days in a week.
Thanks for the tip at Bezu. I assume it’s a tip –?
(I expect to see a nasty note in my inbox in the next 24 hours telling me that it is most assuredly NOT on the menu, monsieur, and why have I done a thing like this and stirred up all this trouble for Chef and his staff … )
Vegan Chic followed by a question for the best Steak Tartare, well played. With rising prices for various proteins during a down economy, do you see restaurants offering more veg focused dishes in a effort to control costs?
Before I get to that — a note in my inbox from Erica Meier, the exec director of Compassion Over Killing, who asks me to put in a plug for the upcoming Veg Fest.
Happy to, Erica.
Veg Fest will take place Sept. 24th at GWU. Speakers, demos, lots of consciousness-raising, and 19 different food vendors, including the Fojol Bros., Burrito Bandits, and Sticky Fingers. Here’s more info. www.dcvegfest.com …
Now, to the question you asked me, Van Ness.
Short answer: No, can’t see it.
Long answer … For the most part, omnivore diners in this country don’t see vegetarian meals as satisfying. I think that’s too bad — great cooking is great cooking. One of the real measures of a Western chef’s is what he or she can do with vegetables. In this tradition — essentially, the French tradition — it’s a real challenge, which is why a dish like the one I talked about above, the Logan Cox veggie composition, deserves support.
I’d like to see many more veggie dishes, many more interesting veggie dishes — dishes that don’t feel like going without, that deliver all the complexity and satisfaction as meat or fish dishes.
I hope it comes to pass.
I also hope, as I said earlier, we see more in the way of BLTs. I don’t think the two wishes cancel each other out. Both can thrive.
Do you have any insight into how DC restaurants charge/upsell wines? I’ve noticed the same bottle of wine priced in the $30s in one restaurant and $40s in another. What is the method used to price wines? Is there any oversight to this?
I don’t know if it’s just me, but restaurant wine prices seem to be sky rocketing in the last couple years, where we’re spending more on wine than the meal. Even wines by the glass…almost impossible to find a glass of wine under $10.
It almost appears that restaurants can simply charge whatever they wish for wines. Shouldn’t there be some percentage threshold to how much restaurants can upsell wine?
There’s no method, so far as I know. And no oversight. Restaurants can do as they please.
The reason you’re seeing such expensive glasses of wine is that the economy is tanking and the price of everything that finds its way onto the plate has gone up, up, up — and yet restaurants know that they cannot charge $34 for an entree right now. Keeping the costs of entrees in the low- to mid-twenties — this is what diners want to see right now. Approachability, affordability: These are the industry watchwords.
But the restaurant has to make its money somewhere.
So that leaves two options. One is to shrink portions. A lot of places go this route. I’ve seen some tiny, tiny dishes in the past six months. The gap between appetizer and entree is closing, and fast.
The other is to jack up the cost of wines. $17 for a glass of Chardonnay is not unthinkable anymore. It’s very, very thinkable. It’s becoming the norm. You can pay as much for a glass of wine these days as you do for an entree that resembles an appetizer.
Two glasses of wine? There’s your $34.
Be well, everyone, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]