Tuesday, September 27, 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  . . .

* Johnny’s Half Shell, DC
This town could stand a few more places like Ann Cashion and Johnny Fulchino’s retro seafood house. Never surprising, never innovative, never wowing, but almost never disappointing, either. And often delicious. The soft shells, if they’re still on the menu as September comes to a close, are superb — a must-order: sweet and meaty and lightly sauteed.

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.

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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Mount of Lebanon

After last week’s chat and seeing Mount of Lebanon listed on places you would pay to eat at. My co-workers and I headed over for lunch and we were not disappointed. Their chicken and lamb shawarma sandwiches were some of the best I have had in this area in a long long time.

Later on in the week my wife and I went for dinner and I can say from both visits the only negative is the service. The waitress had no clue about the menu and when we asked her about certain items her response was “I do not know this cuisine.”

I hope the owners provide their wait staff with proper training, so that customers do not get turned off about going back and end up missing out on some great food.

Thanks!

I hope so, too.

The cooking is excellent — the best Lebanese food in the area, in my opinion — and it’s wonderful to see the place return after the fire that devastated the old Lebanese Butcher, shutting down operations for a year.

From what I can tell, it’s a new staff, and it’s not surprising that it would take a while for the operation to find its legs. It is surprising, however, that someone on staff would not have knowledge of the dishes — and express it so blithely.

Washington, D.C.

My older sister, a big foodie, and also in the wine industry is coming to town this week for her first visit. I am looking for places with a killer wine list, great food, and a place for her to get an overall great DC experience. Suggestions??

Take her to Proof, right by the Verizon Center.

Imaginative small plates, terrific wines, and a casual, sophisticated vibe that every ambitious new restaurant that opens in the city seems to want to copy.

I can’t imagine she wouldn’t have herself a great time.

Midtown, DC

Where would you head for a fun, somewhat casual lunch near 18th and Connecticut today? There are so many places nearby, but none leap out at me as particularly good. Shake Shack could work, but it might be too casual (and a zoo).

Oh, it’ll definitely be a zoo.

I’ve never been there — or the Madison Square Park location — when it wasn’t a zoo.

You could pop in at Casa Nonna for a tasty meatball sandwich, or you could wander up to Zorba’s Cafe, north of the Circle. for a creamy, fluffy taromasalata, a snappily-dressed chickpea salad, and a hot gyro.

Soups (in/around Arlington)

Good morning!

Where can I find good soups? For example, I enjoy the soups at Potbelly and Whole Foods but I’d also like to find some at cafes and markets instead of white tablecloth restaurants.

Do you have some recommendations for me? Thank you.

Well, there’s Pho 75, on Wilson Blvd., and that’s about as good as quick-serve soup gets. Remember to tear up the sawtooth herb and give it a good swirl in the bowl.

Bayou Bakery, right at the Courthouse, makes a terrific gumbo.

It’s been a while since I had it, but I seem to recall a good mulligatawny at Delhi Club, near the Metro.

If you’re willing to expand your geographic area, there’s a fantastic peanut soup (sopa de mani) at El Pike, in Falls Church. Though I think it’s only served on the weekends.

Vaso’s Kitchen, in Alexandria, makes a pretty good avgolemeno, the classic egg-thickened chicken-and-lemon soup.

I hope that helps.

It’s not in Arlington, but I popped into the new Soupergirl, in Takoma Park, last week. It’s a take-out and sit-in operation, and there’s also a system whereby you can order soups the way you order produce via CSAs.

All the soups there are vegan, and they are vivid demonstrations of just how much can be done without cream and butter and meat. The three I tried were all good.

My only gripe? $6.75 for a not-big bowl is kinda high. And a buck extra for a piece of bread — with no butter or olive oil — is kinda high, too.

McLean, VA

Hi Todd!

For your reader traveling to Montreal, I had (I think) the best and most intriguing tasting menu I’ve ever had at Toqué! last summer – seriously unbelievable.

And I love L’Express for the perfect small and lively joint to tuck into to heat up and chow down, which your reader will probably be needing around this time of year at that latitude. Cheers!

Thanks for chiming in … And I hope our lucky chatter gets to see this …

L’Express. One of those old-school joints you love just for surviving and being itself. A more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts sort of place. For me, the special appeal of it is knowing that the late, great Mordecai Richler loved it, and made mention of it in several of his books.

Is anyone else out there a fan of Richler’s? A wonderful blend of funny and tender, or funny and blistering. But always funny.

If you haven’t read the books, maybe you caught the 2010 movie, “Barney’s Version”? It missed a lot of the spunk of the book, but I found it to be a sweet and affectionate story — I wanted to spend time in that world. And I did — I saw it three times. Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Barney’s father was remarkably understated, but also one of the best things he’s done. There’s too little depiction of fathers and sons in movies that is not cliched or pitched too high or pathological. This one was wonderful.

Falls Church, VA

My Wife wants to go to brunch for her brithday but she would prefer a nice place in the country so we can get a pretty drive as part of the celebration.

Can you recommend a nice place to have brunch that is not in the City. We live in Falls Church so anything within an 60 to 90 minute drive in either Maryland or Virgnia would work. Thanks so much

Easy. The Ashby Inn, in Paris, Virginia.

Not quite Paris, France, but I think you’ll find it a great fall weekend getaway, and the brunch — devised by chef Tarver King — reflects unusual care and consideration. And much more ambition than you might expect.

There’re a slew of inns like this scattered throughout the Virginia countryside, beckoning urbanites like you and me to come out and get away from it all. I think this one’s one of the better ones.

Cleveland Park

Hi Todd-

In your opinion, what about the DC dining/restaurant scene makes it unique and exciting, especially compared to other major cities?

The thing that makes it unique and interesting, relative to other cities, is really just the sheer variety we have here.

Peruvian, Vietnamese, Bolivian, Ethiopian, Korean, Afghan — you seldom find these cuisines in other big American cities. Even New York, an ethnic food mecca, has little in the way of good Bolivian, Vietnamese and Ethiopian cooking.

I think one of the more interesting developments over the past couple of years is the way that some of these cuisines are finding their way into higher-end dining, as chefs continue to experiment with some of the foods they dig into when they’re not in the kitchen.

I sense that you were hoping that I would speak more specifically to the more visible aspects of the scene. I think the changes that we’re witnessing are fascinating, and I think, generally, these are good changes for the scene. But I don’t particularly think that they’re unique to DC.

Lots of cities have huge food truck populations — Portland’s monthly magazine recently did a huge feature on the Top 40 food trucks in the city. Which means there are probably 40 or more it left out.

I don’t think our upper echelon restaurants are particularly unique. Terrific, yes — but not particularly unique when you compare them to other cities.

What IS interesting, is the way we have evolved from being a very stratified, very conservative scene, into something that is much more varied, unpredictable and interesting.

Arlington, VA

There is good French Onion Soup at Lyon Hall.

Also, the pork knuckle stew at Thai Square is really good, although not a traditional soup. I know they have a couple other good soups on the menu, but they might be on the Thai menu.

I used to love that pork knuckle stew. But you’re right — not a soup. Not really even a stew, either.

You mentioned Lyon Hall — I also seem to recall some pretty good soups at its sister, Liberty Tavern.

pollo alla brasa …

Todd,

I don’t know about you but I’ve been really disappointed with some of the rotisserie chickens I’ve been picking up lately. Lot of fatty or soft skin and a lot of the meat has been less than juicy. Is it just me? Where are you going for your fix?

Thanks, love the chats, and love your writing. — Jason

Jason, thanks so much …

And I don’t think it’s you. I’ve had a lot of middling Peruvian chickens lately, myself. El Pollo Rico, my old standby, has become the sort of place where you have to get a chicken right as it’s come off the long skewer. If it goes into the case to warm, forget it. The chicken at El Pollo Kiki Riki, also in Wheaton, can be really good, but the same thing: you don’t want a bird that’s been sitting and warming.

I recently discovered a good new place in Greenbelt, in the Greenway Center, called Pollo Cabaña. I’ve been three times, and the chicken has been excellent. Good spice, good skin, and juicy meat. And nothing I’ve had has sat for too long.

Apparently the owners, Mehran Tamami and Rahil Sayadi, tested a dozen different recipes over 4 months — all from their Cuzco-born chef — before picking the winner. They appear to have picked right.

 

Blue Duck

Todd,

What’s the word? Still good? Would you recommend someplace else instead?

Need a place to impress a date this weekend, but not looking just for atmosphere, I want great food too.

Thanks!

I found it to be pretty middlin’ the last time I was in, sometime this summer.

Nothing memorable, nothing distinctive. Expensive, too. I also had the misfortune of a pushy, upselling waiter.

If I can, I’d like to steer you to Eola, in Dupont Circle. I think it’s a fantastic spot for a date, cozy and intimate, and Dan Singhofen, the chef, is sending out some of the most exciting plates in the city right now. …

Thank you all for bearing with the slowness of this thing today. We’ve had some frustrating technical problems, and they have not quite resolved themselves over the course of the chat. I’m sure you’re losing patience with the long lags. I know I am.

I’m going to shut this down and sign off, and hope that we can get some of these things corrected for next time.

Eat well, be well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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