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 . . .
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.
I like the new look — the Cleveland Park restaurant and bar now share the same clattering (and sometimes thunderous) space — but I like the revamped, 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.
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.
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.
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.
* Shawafel, DC
H St. has built is rep as a place to come chill and drink, with food a distant concern of most restaurants and resto-lounges. This quick-serve Lebanese spot flips that model. Owner Alberto Sissi, an acolyte of Jose Andres’s Think Food Group, attends to details. The slices of beef-and-lamb shwarma sport nicely crusted edges, the hummus is a rich but surprisingly well-balanced whip, and the small discs of falafel, made from chickpeas and fava beans, are marvelously light and crunchy. (I’m waiting for my next hangover to dive into the french fry sandwich.)
* new this week
I see you frequently reference and recommend El Pike in Falls Church. I assume you are referring to the restaurant on Columbia Pike, which is the only one I see reviews for. Do you know anything about the restaurant with the same name on Route 50 and Patrick Henry (Wiliston Shopping Center)?
It should be for the El Pike at Williston Shopping Center. I’ll look into the listing. Thanks for the heads-up …
And as for El Pike itself, yes, I think it’s a terrific spot for Bolivian cooking. Saltenas, sopa de mani (that’s a peanut soup), steak-and-eggs (with, predictably, two or three kinds of starch attending) …
Do you know of a great restaurant on a college campus in DC? My alma mater had an upscale restaurant that was staffed by students, and the food wasn’t bad, especially for the price, which was cheaper than similar upscale places. And a couple of weeks ago, I was at San Diego State University where their restaurant is mostly filled by locals who enjoy the food and view of the city. I now want to do research to see if I’m overlooking a great restaurant at Georgetown/GW/American/Howard/etc. Thanks!
If there is, I haven’t heard of it.
I wish there was, for the students’ sake but also for the communities — these kinds of places are good for many, many people. Colleges that have culinary programs usually have a restaurant somewhere on campus where you can go and eat a pretty darn good meal for a pittance. It’s a fun thing.
Now, at the University of Maryland, there IS a place, and it’s apparently a good place. The Post’s Mike Rosenwald got a look — and taste; well, more than taste — at 251 North for a blog column he wrote a few weeks ago. Here’s the link to that. Fun read; and the pictures make me hungry. The problem, of course — well, problem for outsiders like you and me and everyone presumably reading here — is that we can’t get in. It’s student only.
Did anyone out there eat anything that looked even remotely this good during your college years? And I don’t just mean on-campus. I mean off-campus, too.
speaking of H Street dining, have you been to the Atlas Room? I’ve been hearing good things about it.
I wrote about it many months ago, here, on the chat. I like it a lot. The best thing it has going for it is not the food or the drink or the setting. The best thing going for it is the fact that it knows what it is. And isn’t. And so it knows what to do, and what not to do.
A lot of restaurants would do well, I think, to take notes.
There’re now three good places on H St. Atlas Room, Ethiopic (the best lega tibs I have ever had, and the best Ethiopian cooking you’re going to find in the city at the moment), and Shawafel.
Not tremendous, given the number of places that have opened, but if you were feeling generous you could say that things are trending in the right direction.
I want to take a date to a great korean BBQ restaurant in the VA suburbs, what can you recommend?
It’s really hard to beat Honey Pig Goolaegee, in Annandale, if you’re looking to blow off steam and get your chow on.
(And really, if you’re not looking to get your chow on what’s the point of going for Korean barbecue?)
A couple of things separate it from the pack. And the pack is larger than you might think.
One is atmosphere — it’s like a club in there at prime time. The other is the meats — they’re higher-quality than a lot of places.
If you go, remember to drop back on next week and regale us with details …
Food life for people in Cheverly has changed quite a bit in the past two years. Most recently, the veritable plethora of dining choices nearby has really changed where we go out.
As you mention the mileage rule, all of these places being less than 10 minutes on small roads automatically makes them more attractive and makes us more flexible, easy to please diners.
A shout out to all of these restaurants for taking the step of coming into a new area. We’ve given each of these places in nearby Hyattsville a few tries or more and this is our take so far on this PG county dining hotspot:
We have to mention Franklin’s Brewpub because they were there first and we appreciate they have always been there. Great brews, very child friendly, the waitstaff kind and attentive and the food is fresh and hot. I think they have a good pizza and love the summer special pizza with fresh pesto and heirloom tomatoes. We stick with the simpler items on the menu and splurge on the beer. It’s fun and it now feels like visiting an old friend when we go in.
Busboy’s and Poets is enormous but comfy inside and out. It’s possible to eat healthy here, not just pseudo-healthy, and they do a great veggie burger and sweet potato fries. We appreciate their emphasis on organic, vegetarian, and gluten free which helps give them a pass for generally pretty blah grub. We haven’t had anything bad, we haven’t had anything great, but we will be back likely until we try everything because they are kind to our son, have a good menu (esp for our gluten free son), stand for something interesting and because it’s nice in there. Just stay simple and know you are getting quality not necessarily finesse.
Elevation burger has great olive oil fries, and if you are a McDonald’s fan (or a recovering one) this place is targeted at you. Organic and grass fed, it’s an honorable mission, but it doesn’t come cheap. For the meat, I get it, but the veggie burger is paltry and just not worth it. If you aren’t there for beef cross the street.
Tara Thai surprised us with fresh tasty, flavourful cooking without relying on grease and sweet to pack the punch. We were hoping for mediocre – good Thai food and it surpassed our expectations well into the good category. Pad Kee Mao, their soups, curries, are tasty and hot. Service is still working out kinks but they seem to care and the food shows it.
Shagga Coffee is just up the road holding the place for the best coffee and Ethiopian (stick with the veggie platter) and is significantly less yuppified and more “authentic” than the other’s here. And Yes! has organic rotisserie chickens and a great beer selection. There is an Indian restaurant opening this year which looks interesting– 6 Spices — have any scoop on this one? Do you think this is a growing trend in PG, or just here so close to the University?
Thanks, adventurous restaurateurs, for making PG County a better place to eat and live!
I believe it’s called Spice 6, and I believe it’s a chain. I also believe it’s from London. So that adds a little more interest. And intrigue.
I don’t think it’s a growing trend for the county generally, to see this kind of influx of restaurants. It has to do with the creation of Rte. 1 as a kind of economic and cultural anchor.
Whole Foods looks as though it may be on its way to Riverdale Park — a topic that seems to be dividing people in the Hyattsville/University Park/Riverdale area, with some fearing that it will jam traffic among other things. Kojo Nnamdi recently explored the topic on a show.
There is the development, still on the boards I believe, for the College Park East project, which, last I heard, included a satellite of the Birchmere and several restaurants.
If the Korean BBQ person wants a more upscale and quiet atmosphere instead of the club, although I personally prefer the club atmosphere with Korean pop music, Han Gang is good.
Good call. Thanks for chiming in on this …
It seems that there are burger bars that are opening in a monthly basis in DC! The list can go on and on: Shake Shack, Good Stuff Eatery, Bobby’s Burger Palace, BGR, Black and Orange (formerly Rogue Burgers), the new Jeff Tunks place (Burger, Tap and Shake), etc…
What do you feel is the best burger place to try if you had to pick one or two? To me, Five Guys is the best for a quick bite for lunch with no waiting and for upscale burger bars, can any of these places beat the quality and taste of Ray’s Hell Burger?
Well, I haven’t had a burger yet at Burger, Tap and Shake — Tunks’s new entrant into the Patty Wars.
But I will say that my answer hasn’t really changed much from what it was six months ago. I still think the best burger is at Ray’s, and my number two is probably BGR. There is something, though, about the smell of the burgers at Shake Shack, so that if I’m walking past, say, on my way to BGR, I might just be persuaded to stop and go in and get one. An amazing smell, that smell.
American culture is so artificial and contrived in so many ways, and American business so crass and calculating, that the cynic in me thinks: Do they spray it into the air? Is it bottled and manufactured and then dispensed from a can? They can’t possibly have created, from scratch, without chemical assistance, a burger that conjures the smell of the boardwalks of my childhood, can they?
The thing I find interesting about all the burger spots in our midst now is that you have at least two different camps. Not that people don’t cross over, but the camps are generally pretty stable. You have people who love seeing a burger boutiqued and played with and dressed up in all sorts of finery — unusual ingredients, lovingly made bun, fancy condiments, etc. And then you have people who think that a burger ought to be a sloppy, simple thing — that to upscale it and fetishize it is to take it beyond what it was meant to be.
Where do you all come down?
I’ve gotta say, you’re generally going to find me in the latter camp — though I make exceptions now and again. The DB Burger at DB Bistro Moderne, for instance, is pretty fabulous.
We will be hosting relatives next week and need some ideas for very good restaurants in and around McLean. Any recommendations would be deeply appreciated. Evo Bistro? Harth? Richard? Bazin’s? Nostos? Thanks so much.
Quandary? No quandary.
Pretty simple, actually. Michel, Evo Bistro and Nostos. There — itinerary’s set. ; )
Enjoy yourselves, and drop back on next week and let us know how your meals turned out …
I was catching up on past chats, Todd, and just wanted to say, Thank you. I cannot stand to be serenaded with, Are you still working on that?
I don’t know if you are having an influence, but I can tell you that the past few meals out my husband and I enjoyed were mercifully free of these silly intrusive questions. Thanks again. Love the chats.
P.S. I have bought two copies of your superb book to give as gifts and was wondering whether you might sign them for me.
Aren’t you wonderful? And of course — I’ll be happy to sign them. Drop me an email at email@example.com and I’ll send you my home address. Thank you so much for the generous words and the support.
It’s interesting that you say you’ve noticed a tailing off, because I think I’ve picked up on the same thing. Who knows? Could just be a fluke.
The thing that’s getting under my skin these days is the prevalence of the future continuous tense. Was there some convention that GMs attended where they were all instructed to tell their servers to say, as they set down a dish on the table, “This is going to be the roast lamb with baby root vegetables and an emulsion of black garlic”?
Going to be.
In other words, your eyes deceive you. What looks exactly like roast lamb with baby root vegetables and an emulsion of black garlic could, in fact, be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But wait — it will transform itself, momentarily, right in front of your eyes, become the thing you think it is.
I would argue that there are two sets of burger variables that divide people: fancy sandwich/sloppy sandwich and thick patty/thin patt(ies).
I imagine the spectrum as a four quadrant graph with fancy/sloppy on the vertical axis and thin/thick on the horizontal axis.
Although I haven’t had them all yet (most notably Shake Shack), my favorites in each quadrant (clockwise, from the bottom right) are Five Guys (thin/sloppy); Good Stuff (thin/fancy); BGR (thick/sloppy); and Central (thick/fancy).
Ray’s can fall within either of the latter two categories, depending on how you order it. Either I’m a geek or like burgers way too much. Probably both.
Can I just say? I LOVE the burger graph.
I’d love to make reference to this in the future and, of course, credit you whenever I do. If you’re game, drop me a note …
We had one of those fancy places in the student union at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Here in DC, where good restaurants are easy to find, even at student prices, I can’t imagine what purpose it would really serve.
On another note, it’s good to hear the positive words for Shawafel…but I still think what I’d thought when I first heard it was coming: it’s the worst possible name. Sounds simultaneously like it’s in Shaw and it’s “awful”!
I think a campus restaurant like I’m talking about, a place that’s open to the community, a place where the culinary students send out four- and five-course meals — meals of great complexity and ambition, and often of beauty — and the cost only runs you about ten or fifteen bucks … I think a place like that is always a welcome thing.
Shawafel, a bad name? Really? I think it’s a good name. Certainly better than Falarma. ; )
Last week I received a pre-paid Visa gift card and decided I would put it to good use and take my fiancé and myself out for dinner.
Because he loves seafood we decided to try Passionfish.
When the check came at the end of the meal I was informed that this restaurant doesn’t accept gift cards. I was a little taken aback since I have never known any establishment to reject a pre-paid Visa gift card.
Is this typical? The manager’s explanation was that they don’t accept third party cards; however, it just didn’t sit well with me at the end of the evening. Thanks!
Thanks for writing in …
That wouldn’t have sat well with me, either.
As to how typical it is, I can’t answer that. It’s never come up before.
I’d be interested in hearing from restaurateurs and managers and servers out there, reading this — or reading this later, after the fact … What’s your restaurant’s policy on these sorts of cards?
If you don’t take them, I’d be interested in hearing why you think they’re a problem.
Love the Burger Graph. I see a PowerPoint presentation during next chat!!
Isn’t it fantastic?
I’m still thinking about it …
The problem with the name Shawafel is that it gives the impression that it’s in Shaw and then, at least when spoken out loud, the additional impression that it could be awful.
Since it’s not located in Shaw and is apparently quite good, the name does a disservice to the restaurant. The first time I saw the name I assumed it was in Shaw, and comments online indicated that other people thought that as well.
Maybe it’s because I saw the place before I read anything or heard anything about it — saw that it was on H St.
And maybe it’s also because I knew that it was a shawarma-falafel house.
I don’t know.
But still: “Sha-WAFEL.”
No Shaw sound.
I used one of these recently at Graffiato, but I called them beforehand to make sure it was accepted. While, I agree that it should be accepted, it’s always best to ask about these things in advance, especially at pricier establishments like Passionfish.
Yeah, good advice.
But I can understand why the chatter would have been put out. It’s not as if the card said: Corky’s Clean Plate Club. It said: VISA. Corporate tagline: “Accepted Most Everywhere.”
I wrote in about Sichuan Pavilion a couple of weeks ago. We went back again this weekend and had the general guan’s chicken, the lotus root salad, and the cucumbers, all of which were great. Thanks for the recommendations!
To be daring, we also ordered the pigs ear in hot chili sauce. I’ve actually had fried pigs ear before at Eola and it was good – kind of like pork rinds.
The Sichuan Pavailion pigs ear wasn’t fried – I think it was maybe braised – and while it wasn’t awful, but the texture was a little off-putting. I don’t think I’d order it again.
I hear you.
Most definitely an acquired taste.
Like stinky tofu.
I’m so glad to hear the recommendations worked out. Thanks for writing in …
I need a recommendation for an early dinner somewhere near Metro Center or Farragut West stations, but it needs to be casual enough so it doesn’t have that “romantic” vibe, but not a dive, pub type place. I can’t seem to find anything on Google Maps that’s appropriately in between.
Old Ebbitt Grill?
Not romantic, but nor is it pubby. Great raw bar, fun vibe …
I was walking my dog the other night and there were food trucks outside Willow. They were having some sort of food event (which I wish I knew about it looked great).
I inquired at DC Empanadas food truck whether I needed a ticket or could just purchase an empanada from her as they smelled fantastic. She was so nice she just gave me one for free. My husband and I agreed it was really good. That was just so nice of her!
Incredibly nice of her.
Now you need to return the favor and seek them out around town and buy one.
Thanks for the story. Good for DC Empanadas.
I really could go for one of those right about now …
On gift cards – Todd, I don’t use ’em for dining. Here’s why.
If I have a $50 gift card, and the meal comes to $49.00 — the restaurant’s credit card system will decline my $50 gift card. They automatically place a “hold” on more than the total price of your meal – leaving a little room for a tip.
I can understand restaurants declining Visa gift cards — to avoid having to explain all this to patrons.
I didn’t know that.
If that’s the explanation, I understand perfectly. Though even so, I think a manager should have given the chatter/diner some sort of insight as to why.
Thanks for writing in.
And thank all of you for your great comments and questions today. For all MOT, a very happy 5772 and an easy fast … I’m off to lunch …
Be well, everyone, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]