Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 11 AM

Every Tuesday at 11, food & wine editor Todd Kliman takes your questions about Washington area cuisine and restaurant news

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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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.

Ardeo+Bardeo, DC
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.

* Mount of Lebanon, Falls Church
The Lebanese Butcher, a tiny cafe destroyed by a fire last September, has been reborn a year later as a spacious open room with tables laid with lipstick-red cloth and matching walls. The lamb and chicken are trucked over from owner Kheder Rababeh’s Warrenton slaughterhouse, and that freshness is put in the service of dishes that are by turns garlicky, tangy, smoky and pungent. Must-orders: the ineffably light baba ghanous and the fateh, tender hunks of lamb arranged atop fried chips of pita and doused with tangy yogurt.

Komi, DC
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.

* Eola, DC
Daniel Singhofen scrapped his a la carte menu this past April, replacing it with a $65 five-course tasting menu. The move seemed premature, given that the chef had yet to establish his Dupont Circle townhouse restaurant as a landmark dining destination, one that had endured many seasons and fads. But Singhofen and company appear ready to make the leap. Courses are imaginatively conceived without straining for effect, and the execution is clean and precise without lapsing into austerity. Best of all, Singhofen imbues these sophisticated dishes with a quality more precious than all the tricks in the molecular gastronomer’s toolkit: soul.

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 fascinating 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, 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

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Rockville, MD

There was discussion on Sep 13 of BLT sandwiches …

If you’re in Easton, MD sometime stop in at Piazza Italian Market and get a delicious PLT panini. P is for prosciutto. Take it out or eat it there. Delicious!

Thanks for the tip.

I have to say, though, I am generally suspicious of things like this — prosciutto subs in for bacon, and instead of plain toast there’s panini bread. I’m not saying it can’t be good — you tell me it is, and I’m inclined to believe you — but I just don’t think that toying with things is always necessary.

And especially not with a fail-safe like a traditional BLT.

Do we go out to eat because we want to see originality? Or because we want something delicious?

I’d rather not make that choice. I’d rather have both. But that’s a rarity. And very, very expensive when it happens — not an everyday sort of thing.

I’ll take deliciousness over originality any day.

It’s easier to be original than good.

But what about the rest of you?

Bethesda

My husband and I discovered Sichuan Pavilion over the summer and have been back a few times.

So far we’ve tried the flounder with pickled cabbage that you recommend, the flounder in fiery soup (which is similar), the mapo tofu, the kung pao chicken, the smoked duck, the dan dan noodles, the zhong dumplings, the scallion pancake, the double cooked pork, and the steamed pork buns with chicken broth.

Everything has been great except for the smoked duck (I thought the smoke flavor was too overpowering and the duck was tough and greasy,although my husband liked it) and the dan dan noodles (I think the noodles were just cold spaghetti and there wasn’t enough sauce to coat them).

I’d really like to sample more of the menu, but the portions are so large that even if we only order two dishes we sometimes wind up with leftovers. Are there any other dishes you would recommend that we haven’t tried? Dishes you don’t think are worth ordering?

Well, let’s see … there’s the pickled, spicy cucumbers, the General Guan’s chicken, the crunchy seaweed noodles (tossed with sesame oil and minced garlic), and the lotus root salad …

All are dishes I’ve either really enjoyed or loved.

I’m not as enamored of the dumplings there, or the kitchen’s rendition of scallion pancake. I agree with you about the dan dan noodles; they’re not getting a good-quality noodle, though the sauce is nicely zesty and pungent.

Hyattsville, MD

Hi Todd,

I’m curious if you have eaten at Hanks in University Town Center and if so your impression of the experience. I continue to be incredibly amazes at the poor quality of food and service.

I ate there recently at 6:30 PM and had the ribeye, ordered medium and it came out bloody.I had to eat my dinner with a salad fork after asking for a dinner fork and being told “they did not have any, we dont use them”. Granted I was sitting at the bar, but really?

In addition my side order arrived after I had finished my meal.

The check came and the steak was comped by the manager, who had never come over to talk to me. I should point out as well that I did not ask for anything to be removed from the check. But this was AGAIN a frustrating experience there.

I also noticed the party next to me sent theur food back for being under cooked as well. The last time i was there with my family and 40 minutes after ordering we still had no food ( at 5:30 PM).

Personally I would like Hanks to pack it up and give the space to a vendor who can do better. Thanks for your thoughts, Dylan.

Dylan, thanks for writing.

Last I was in was about nine months ago. And it was the weakest, by far, of all the meals I’ve had there. Two of the people at my table — this was a table of four — said they would not return.

To their credit, they did comp you the steak, but I agree with you, there should have been some communication on this.

Hank’s is getting some real competition these days, what with Busboys & Poets having recently opened down the street and a Tara Thai set to open any day now. Be interesting to see what happens.

McLean, VA

Todd,

If you had to provide a quick answer on where my fiance and I should go for a good dinner date Saturday night where would it be?

Outside of Zaytinya and Jaleo we have not been out in a few months and want to check out something new to the scene. Ideally in DC but not Cleveland park area. Thanks!

I’d book a table at Eola, in Dupont Circle, if I were you.

I just added it to my defacto top 10, see above. It’s not new to the scene, but it may be new to you. And even among ardent foodies, it still flies under the radar for some reason.

It’s a cozy, warm environment, the service is excellent, the music reflects a real jazz lover’s sensibility, and the cooking manages to be both lusty and refined. And it’s in a townhouse — a real plus for a dinner date, if you ask me.

Fairfax, VA

Hi Todd:

I am going out with some friends near the 6th and I Historic Synagogue. I’m looking for an interesting place for dinner that is within walking distance for about 6 ladies. Haven’t been to Burma in a very long time. Still ok or do you have another recommendation?

Burma? No no no. Hasn’t been worth the cost or calories in a while.

How do you define walking distance? The high-toned Indian restaurant Rasika is pretty close, and excellent if expensive. A little further, but also a little cheaper — and also excellent: Cafe du Parc, at the Willard, for French cooking. Close and cheap: Matchbox, for miniburgers, lacy fries and beers.

I hope that helps.

By the way, talking about the Sixth and I Historic synagogue reminds me …

Carrie Engel, a publicist, asked me to put out the word for an interesting food-related event featuring my friend Joan Nathan.

I’m putting it out:

“Join three-time James Beard award winner and host of PBS’s “Jewish Cooking in America” as she takes to the stage at National Geographic to discuss her experiences searching for Jewish cooking in a country of brie and baguettes. A reception will follow the lecture, allowing the audience to taste Joan’s delicious, award-winning food. The event will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. at National Geographic (1600 M St., NW). Tickets are $48 for the general public and $42 for National Geographic members. More information can be found at www.nglive.org.”

Crystal City

Any advance info on Chakra Cafe in the old Farrah Olivia space in Alexandria?

Not yet, sorry.

I will take this moment, however, to fill you all in on some interesting inside dope …

* Nick Palermo, a former sous chef at 2941 and Inox, has become the new chef at The Old Anglers Inn. Apparently, a big revamp of the historic restaurant is in the works, and Palermo’s hiring is a step in the direction of upgrading the kitchen. Among the items expected on the new menu: short ribs, sweetbreads, lamb shanks, and braised veal. The new restaurant could open as soon as next month.

* John Paul Damato, formerly of Jose Andres’s Think Food Group, has been hired by Bev Eggleston at Eco Friendly Foods to help develop his expanding market. Eggleston is apparently trying to get more of his products into the Atlanta and New York markets.

* A source tells me that Rob Weland’s recent decision to split from Poste was motivated in part by Weland’s unease with being asked to cut food costs, a directive from the Hotel Monaco’s new owners. Apparently Weland felt he would no longer be able to turn to the high-quality purveyors he had come to depend upon, among them Eco Friendly, Grayson Beef and Pipe Dreams.

* This same source also tells me that Jeffrey Buben is eyeing a deal that would bring his next restaurant to the former Inox location in Tyson’s Corner.

Fairfax, VA

Sir…..your chat has become required reading for me….thank you for the many great recommendations.

My questions…..my wife and I will hit New Orleans in November for our first time ever.

Recommendations for both lunch and dinner over three days? Thanks!!!

Thank you for finding us …

And I hope you continue to read and contribute …

OK, N’awlins. I’ve got three names for you: Stella, Cochon, and Stanley. You’re going to have a fabulous time, believe me.

Dispatches from a Wayward Restaurant Refugee

Perhaps it was because I was in the middle of reading Atul Gawande’s excellent book The Checklist Manifesto, but I felt a tinge rise when the server at an expensive steakhouse refused to write down orders for our table of eight people.

Most professional servers and bartenders I know can keep staggering amounts of information in the their head but by my accounting, there were nearly 50 discreet pieces of datum (seat position, app, entree, temperature, sides, wine) at our table. This was a knuckleheaded mistake in its utter avoidable-ness.

Of course, an order was confused and misplaced, a steak was off a temperature… all because a server wanted to use his memory like a parlor trick. For the record, which steakhouse doesn’t really matter in my mind as they’re all so similar (cough, Morton’s,) and this was a minor inconvenience at most. However, when the price of admission is around $300 a head (including some grotesquely over priced wines, tax, and an auto-gratuity) avoidable inconvenience is a bit more noticeable.

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In an area crowded with oohhh-so-serious cocktail lounges, it would be easy to miss the relatively new bar within the bar at Tonic Mount Pleasant.

Last Exit has small tables, a small bar, lighting that makes everyone look a little bit better, and subtle design elements that makes this place sexy – sexy like Coltrane and cashmere not Barry White and bad poetry.

The cocktails are not to be missed either. If “worth the trip,” is an element of restaurant/bar quality, I posit that this place is worth the cab ride (no one should plan on driving after an evening of their seductive and addictive elixirs.)

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I think that using duck fat to make french fries is a truly lovely thing… a lovely source of pride about which a restaurant would be forgiven the occasional boast. Duck fat frying is a lovely thing that is thoroughly ruined by using FROZEN french fries. Yes, I’m looking at you Station 4.

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Corporations and national chains are easy (and sometimes lazy) whipping posts in culinary discussions. But when someone at Marriott decided to replace the Town & Country Bar with a Thomas Pink store, the corporate muckety mucks make it easy to mock them. In a city proliferated with newer, sexier, lounges, The Town & Country might not have been relevant as a bar for several years but it has always been iconic. Companies can’t pay for iconic status. Icons are built through legendary parties and by bartenders who know to make drinks at least as well as they keep secrets. So when faced with the dilemma of an icon that isn’t making enough money, replacing it may seem like a prudent choice, but it is also a soulless and shortsighted one. You don’t replace an icon, you figure out how to make it relevant again.

Great to have you back, RR. I’ve missed you. I hope you had a great summer.

“Sexy like Coltrane and cashmere, not Barry White and bad poetry” — as my people say every year at Passover, dayenu. That line alone would have been enough. But then you tip us to the bar-within-the-bar at Tonic in Mt. Pleasant. Sounds terrific. Thanks.

And as for Station 4, the new-ish restaurant in Southwest … I had a wonderful foie gras dish there, the seared, fattened thing topped with bacon and sandwiched between two pieces of pain perdu. Nothing else, however, was as good. Most was eminently forgettable. The cheap shopping was the dismaying thing; how can you get away with charging $26 bucks for a bowl of cioppino filled with what seemed to these eyes and this mouth to be frozen shrimp? The foie gras, though … Good enough to make me want to come back and give it another kick in the tires. 

Van Ness

New Orleans tip: Weekday lunch at John Besh’s August. They offer a $20 3-course prix fixe, plus an amuse and little treats with the check. Complete steal. Beware the alcoholic drink prices are steep.

Ooh, that IS a great tip. What a deal.

Thanks, Van Ness.

 

Paella in DC

Hi Todd,

After having the best paella ever at Soccarat in NY, I’ve been looking for something comparable over here. Jaleo’s paella doesn’t even come close. Anything else? I’m looking for that crispy bottom where you have to scrape the paella pan!

Keep looking. I haven’t found it.

I think restaurateurs are generally afraid that an American audience is going to think the dish has been overcooked.

Montreal-bound

Todd, we are headed to MTL in a few weeks, and I’m hoping to get some good tips from you. It’s been 5 years since I was last there, and while I’d like to hit up the places I’ve been to already (Au Pied de Cochon for dinner, Schwartz’s for a snack, Chez Cora for breakfast), I’ve been hearing good things about T! and Joe Beef (but also that they are pricey). Any recs? Thanks!

Schwartz’s — that ain’t no snack. You’ll be taken care of for the next meal, too, unless you walk loops around the city.

I love the place. I think about it constantly.

The smoked meat sandwich — medium-fat, with whole fennel and cumin seeds clinging to the edges, its thick-cut lusciousness smeared with mustard and bordered by slices of real rye bread — is one of the ten best things I’ve ever eaten.

I also think constantly about St. Viateur and Fairmont. The bagels. Jesus — the bagels. Made entirely by hand, boiled in honey water, and baked in a wood-burning oven. Best in the world. And yes, that includes New York City.

Some other places for you …

Montee de Lait and Kitchen Galerie, both for dinner, both wonderful … And for lunch — McKiernan, for the sandwiches and charcuterie and oysters.

Falls Church

Oh HAPPY day. Your announcement that the Lebanese Butcher has re-opened is the best news ever for this rainy Tuesday.

Dreaming of fateh as I write this…

It’s dream-worthy, for sure.

I’ve got the uneaten remains sitting in the fridge. Unfortunately, it’s one of those dishes that just doesn’t survive past the meal.

Too bad for my wife. She had to make do with imagining what it might have been like, had she been there.

New Orleans

I’m soooo jealous!! Don’t forget Cafe Du Monde beignets…yes, it’s touristy, but a must do.

Defintely go to Central Grocery for the best muffaletta in town!!

I second Stella and Cochon! Also, if you’re in the mood for Italian, Irene’s Cuisine was great for the ambiance and food.

There’s so many restaurants and so little time in NOLA!

You’re killing me, all of you …

Montreal and New Orleans, the yin and the yang of my food dreams …

I love DC, don’t get me wrong, but what I wouldn’t give right now to be really far north or really far south right about now.

B-day Brunch or Dinner for Mom

Hey Todd:

My mom’s birthday is coming up this Friday and we want to take her out to either a good dinner or brunch this weekend.

Do you have any suggestions for places in Northern VA, since my father refuses to hike into DC for most dining events?

Thanks!

Pass on a “Happy Birthday” to your mom for me, please.

And how about a night in the bistro at Restaurant Eve, in Old Town? I would think that would make her feel pretty special. A round of cocktails to start, a charcuterie board, and then move on to any of the various preparations of game, or maybe a bowl of bouillabaisse.

Or how about a big seafood meal at PassionFish, in Reston? Oysters on the half shell, lobster tail in red curry, a whole fish simply grilled with olive oil and herbs or — my pick — pan-fried two ways and served with two different dipping sauces  …

I hope one of those hits the spot. And I hope you’ll drop back on and let us know how things turned out …

Good luck.

Originality or good?

Todd,

I agree 100% with you on this one. In a perfect world, I would rather not have to choose either/or – but as you point out, this rarely happens and when it does, it is very expensive. Not an everyday occurrence, for sure.

Understanding this, then what do I opt/hope for on a day-to-day basis? Something that is good, even if it means traditional and predictable; there’s nothing wrong with traditional. It is much harder to do good than to turn out something “original.”

However, when I say “original,” it usually is referring to a gimmick; hence, the original. To create a dish that is truly and outstanding in its originality is possible, but I leave that to the truly gifted amongst us, not the business mongers who hope for a quick buck by capitalizing on what someone else successfully or artfully did.

Originality and good food is just like any other art form – there are those true standouts amongst the many purveyors of faux.

When you eat great food that’s not terribly original, you still come away pleased.

When you eat wildly-creative-but-not-terribly delicious food, you come away thinking: Jesus. How pretentious.

At the highest of levels, it’s imperative that the chef satisfies both his needs and yours.

Arlington, VA

Todd,

I have a birthday coming up and am looking for something really special. I’ve had the pleasure of dining at both Komi and Eleven Madison Park this year, and would love to find that level of food and service elsewhere. What in DC (or nearby) comes close?

We have reservations at Rogue 24, but the press and online reviews make it seem like a place that’s more into being hip than good (or, for that matter, welcoming). Is this wrong? And should we keep the reservation or do you have a better suggestion? I’ve been to Citizen, Minibar, and Citronelle already and am looking for something new, unless any of the three have changed substantially in the past few years. Thanks (and yes, I know this is a seriously nice problem to have).

I don’t mean to burden the place with enormous expectations — it’s still young and evolving — but the meal I had recently at Eola was excellent. A pleasure, all around.

I don’t want to get into comparisons at this point — I haven’t given that enough thought — but I will say that Eola is the kind of restaurant I wish we had more of in the city. Personal, intimate, soulful, with nary a detail that feels focus-grouped or “concepted.”

Van Ness

Stopped in at Woodlands last night, love me some S. Indian cooking, and noticed signs for Jewel of India (which you mentioned last week)…seems they are related? Also, I noticed an Indian grocery store/market called Subzi Mandi next to Woodlands, but it was closed when we left the restaurant.

Have you ever been to the market? I usually trek out to Patel Brothers for my India spices.

It’s a good market. Got a little of everything in there.

Is there a connection between Woodlands and Jewel of India? I wasn’t aware of that.

By the way: Since you mentioned southern Indian cooking … the best destination for it at the moment is to be found at Curry Mantra, in Fairfax. Best dosas in the area, and superlative renditions of baingan bhartha and palaak paneer.

Curry Mantra serves a full lineup of both northern and southern indian dishes, but the latter are the reason to make the trip out there.

Marcels

To the high-end diner having a bday dinner coming up, may I suggest Marcels. I have also been to a number of restaurants mentioned by the poster, Komi being my favorite. I loved my experience at Marcels.

The service was phenomenal and so flexible. You can choose your number of courses and from any category on the menu. Additionally, you and your partner are not required to choose the same number of courses. The only difficulty at that restuarant is choosing…there are so many mouth watering options.

I did the 5 course and was very happy I did. Boudin Blanc and Scallops are must tries there.

The boudin blanc there is one of the great dishes in the city, and has been for many years.

Thanks for writing in.

Re: Originality vs good

Todd,

I’m curious – is it harder to do something creative or do something well?

I prefer both because it feeds everything for me, from top to bottom. For me, when this happens, it’s like a 5-star event, where every sense is delighted. When it’s one or the other, it’s a fraction of those five stars because not every sense is, well, satisfied.

Well sure, who doesn’t prefer both?

The ideal is both. Both is what we hope for when we sit down to dinner somewhere nice. But it’s also ilusory, both.

Creativity is wonderful. I love it when I see it. There is too little beauty in this world.

But the reason all of us on here drop so much of our hard-earned money on expensive restaurant meals is because we want to sink our teeth into something delicious. As crazy as it sounds, I think some chefs forget this.

Clifton, VA

Poster complaining about server not writing things down is making a dangerous assumption that all would ahve gone right if they did write the order down. I could do it for a party of 4 but not for 8. Also OP is assuming it was the servers fault. Could have been the expediter or cook.

I was wondering what happened to you, Clifton.

A week without four or five questions from you in my queue feels … strange, somehow.

And yes, you’re absolutely right about this — though I don’t think I would say that it’s a “dangerous” assumption. That’s pretty extreme, even for you.

I’m off to meet my wife and son and sister-in-law for lunch at — as we used to hear so often during the Bush years — a secret, undisclosed location.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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