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. 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.
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.
H St. has built its rep as a place to come chill and drink, with food a distant concern of most restaurants, cafes 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’ve been reading your newsletter for some time now, and you’ve never lead me wrong. Where’s a good place to take a date who loves pizza, but is gluten intolerant/ suffering from Celiac’s disease? (Note: We’ve had bad experiences with Still Riding Pizza)
Pete’s Apizza does a gluten-free pizza.
I haven’t had it, so I can’t vouch for its quality — has anyone out there tried it? — but I can tell you that Pete’s puts out a very good pizza. Sometimes, a great pizza.
If I were a gluten-free eater, I’d be thrilled to know that a place of Pete’s caliber is offering something I can eat.
They’ve got three locations now — Arlington, Tenleytown, and Columbia Heights.
Good luck, and if you give it a go, please drop back on and give us a report. …
Mount of Lebanon: Your colleague at the Washington Post Tom Sietsema did not have too many kind words for Mount of Lebanon in his weekly chat calling the place “strange.”
My husband and I as well as some of our friends have enjoyed the food but the service is autrocious. The last time we went for dinner one of the employees or maybe even a contractor was doing work right in the middle of the dining room while we were trying to eat dinner.
Would these issues with service cause you to maybe remove it from your list of “Where you are eating at now….?
They might — if I had experienced them.
The service I had, at lunch, was just fine. It wasn’t terribly crowded, though. … It’s sometimes the case that if you hit a place after it’s been reviewed, it’s going to be a different experience from what the reviewer wrote about. Some places struggle to adjust to bigger crowds.
I loved everything on the table. Great shwarma and great baba ghanous, especially.
As to the place being “strange” — I don’t know what’s strange about it, other than the fact that it clearly has been made to fit a space that was meant for another occupant, another mission. In that way, I guess you could call Nava Thai strange.
A lot of smaller spots, ethnic spots, mom n pops, are in less-than-perfect accommodations. It’s only an issue, in my mind, if the food isn’t worth it. Good cooking pretty much trumps all.
I wrote in awhile back asking whether I should dine at Komi or Minibar in celebration of a new job. I called both for awhile and Komi was the first to have availability so we went there.
My husband and I had the following concerns: (1) the atmosphere would be stuffy, (2) we might leave hungry after an expensive meal of tiny portions, and (3) given the number of items, surely some courses would be utterly disappointing.
Boy, were we WRONG! It was over-the-moon amazing, leisurely placed, warm and friendly! Every course was really good, every one of them!
We each enjoyed 1 glass of wine apiece throughout the entire meal and I followed your advice of sipping sparkling water between courses to cleanse my palette, which of course, worked like a charm. We left STUFFED!
My husband, who hates paying for tasting menus, agreed with me that this was the best tasting menu we’ve eaten and well worth the money.
I wanted to share the “menu” we enjoyed in August for any Komi-virgins.
1. Steamed brioche topped with trout caviar
2. Crudo platter: light fish with green tomato, Scottish smoked salmon on a squid ink bagel chip, uni with wild boar “salumi” and celery
3. Scallop 2 ways: in shell w crab botargo & coconut w cilantro
4. One-bite spanikopita (we were supervised to ensure that we did indeed eat it in one bite, which squirted in your mouth like a hot soup dumpling)
5. Octopus w gazpacho
6. Tomatoes, roasted peach & anchovies in romesco sauce (who knew anchovies and peaches go so well together?!)
7. House-made tagiatelle w/ caper berry crisps
8. Souvlaki sweetbreads w/ tomato halves & hazelnuts
9. Tongue gyro w potato crisps, frois gois & onions
10. Half-smoked w/ tomato marmalade & pickles
11. Oven-baked date stuffed w marscapone and topped w fleur de sel (for real, this really did perk up our tired palettes and get us ready to continue on to the main course)
12. Roasted goat with bread, lemons, taziki, watermelon radish pickle, Fresno chili pepper pickle, preserved lemon salt, red onion mustard
13. Meyer lemon shortbread
14. Bitter orange baklava w uzo crema
15. Greek donut with fresh cream & berries
16. Root beer lollipops
17. Dark chocolate cups filled with cardamon infused caramel to take home
Aren’t you full from just reading that? As always, thanks for sharing your eating insights and adventures!
I’m cursing you … ; )
I know there are people out there who claim not to get the “big deal” about Komi, but I have to suspect that they are in search of a different sort of vibe, or they don’t like a long, lingering meal, or they aren’t crazy about sharing …
Not saying it’s a perfect restaurant, or that every course there is brilliant, but if you add it all up — the food, the warmth, the enthusiasm and knowledge of the staff, the essential simplicity of it, the lack of pretension or pomp — it’s pretty damn special.
On two topics:
(1) What do you think of Elevation Burger, which is coming next month to the Westfield Shopping Mall in Wheaton?
(2) You and your staff may not know that Ize’s Bagelry in Rockville is a NY bagel. The Greenbergs, the owners of the place, don’t advertise it much but the dough is shipped in early each morning from NY/Queens, then prepared in the Ize’s bagel oven. I think of their bagels as extremely tasty, regardless of their size (just about the only feature of theirs which was commented on in a recent Washingtonian issue).
In its genre, I think Elevation Burger is pretty good.
Thanks, by the way, to chatter Rich Boone for his very insightful and very pithy Burger Chart.
Last week, Boone wrote in to say: “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).”
By that reckoning, Elevation would be in the thin/sloppy quadrant. Only, it’s not as sloppy as Five Guys. And that’s its appeal as far as I’m concerned. (Boone and I are not using “sloppy” as a pejorative, by the way.)
When you’re done eating a burger and fries at EB, you don’t feel as though you just rubbed a palmful of lotion all over your face.
I think they make a great sandwich with the bagel. They pile it thick with good lox and tomato and onion. But the bagels themselves — eh. Too undercooked inside. Too soft. Not my favorite …
Rustico has the best gluten free pizza, Pete’s is second, with Fireworks not worth eating.
Also if you want to make your own, Udi’s has a decent thin crust you can buy frozen or there are various mixes I haven’t tried.
Thanks for chiming in.
I’d love to hear from some others out there who’ve tried some of the gluten-free pizzas in the area …
I’m curious to know how the gluten-free pies are as pies … I know that the appeal is that, as someone who has to be vigilant about what he or she eats, you can eat something like a pizza — but how do these pies compare to ordinary pies?
Ever make it up to daves bistro in gburg for the 31 choices of burgers ? i love them and wondered if you had a thought on the best?
I never have.
There’s a guy I know who’s mentioned the place to me, and I just haven’t gotten there. So, thanks for reminding me …
What’re the burgers to get there? What’re your favorites?
I am usually not a suck-up, but I did want to say that I really enjoyed your article “The Problem of Authenticity” in the inaugural issue of Lucky Peach.
I was somewhat alarmed, however, when you wrote that the Eden Center was 40 minutes outside of Washington, DC. You can almost get to Baltimore or Manassas in that amount of time. Maybe I just need to reassess my own driving habits. 🙂
I’ve made it in less than 40 minutes — but that’s late at night.
In the mornings and after work, with the horrendous car-choke that Northern Virginia is so much of the time, it’s closer to 40 minutes.
Anyway, I’m glad you liked the piece …
Good morning, Todd!
Question: What’s your favorite place to eat in Crystal City? Suggestion: Try out the chicken tenders at Recessions Bar (underneath the Quincy near 19th and L st NW) they are AWESOME!
I don’t know that I have one clear favorite.
If, say, I had to settle on a place for dinner with a group of friends, I’d have a pretty hard time choosing among about 5 different spots I like. It’d probably come down to what I was in the mood for.
Kabob Palace, Urban Thai, Jaleo, Dama (for Ethiopian), Athena Pallas (for Greek) — all pretty good options, and, with the exception of Jaleo, all pretty cheap. (And Jaleo’s not a fortune.)
Surprised to hear of a complaint about the service at Mount of Lebanon – we were regulars at the old Lebanese Butcher and I’d say the service here is much better!
We stopped in to Mount of Lebanon a few weeks ago before an evening concert. They got us in and out quickly and efficiently, and the owner stopped by and chatted with us (and even sent over dessert on the house). It was lovely.
. . . Also – we’re off to Paris next week for a long weeknd. Any great restaurants (particularly hidden gems) we should try?
I don’t think there are any hidden gems left in Paris.
Here’re my current favorites … La Regalade. Le Christine. Senderan for lunch. La Quincave. Le Comptoir. Frenchie.
Have a great time. I’d love to hear a report when you get back — even if it means being hopelessly tantalized …
As for Mount of Lebanon … I ate a bunch at the old Lebanese Butcher, and I would say, based on just the one visit, yes, the service was better.
If it’s a place with prices like this, where two people can eat for something like $40, and the food’s somewhere in the range of pretty darn good to great, then the staff would have to do something pretty egregious for me to ding the place.
At the highest end, however, it’s a different story. Every slip-up has an echoing importance. An oversalted dish … a wine served too warm … a waiter who doesn’t know just what fish is in that night … a runner’s thumb on the rim of the plate … an ill-timed joke from a manager … etc., etc.
That is why Rustico is best.
The crust actually tastes like it could be real bread and doesn’t crumble and disintegrate like some of the more heavy rice flour ones like Fireworks.
Pete’s is thin and very similar to the Udi’s crust pretty minimal, but they have great toppings and it is crisp, but not cracker crisp.
I had also had the Mellow Mushroom which has locations nationwide and it is similar to Pete’s, thin, but it has a bit more rice flour and therefore not as good.
The American Flatbread location in Clarendon had one that tasted like real pizza crust and with their pepperoni it was like eating real pizza, I was so sad to see them go, I don’t know who their crusts were from.
And if you take a GF crust to Liberty Tavern they will make you a pizza with it.
That’s tremendous. What a neat thing for all the gluten-freers. Liberty’s really to be commended for that.
Have you had a Liberty Tavern GF pie?
Thanks for all the great info and insight …
Quick question: do you plan on compiling another comprehensive arrow-graphic-based list of food trends for 2012 a la: https://www.washingtonian.com/articles/restaurants/17779.html
If so, have you already started researching? I’d love a preview. -J
There’ll be a trends watch in the 100 Best Restaurants issue, which is out in January.
I’m looking to take a girl out to an inexpensive/laid back dinner in the Dupont/U Street area tonight. Any suggestions?
How inexpensive are we talking about?
Do you want to be out of there for less than $60? (Note to newcomers: In DC, that qualifies as a reasonably priced night out.)
Bar Pilar’d probably be my first choice. Good mood, good food. Though there’s not much seating and you’d need to hit it early before it gets overwhelmed with people. And yeah, the service is atrocious … But the mood, the food …
Cork’ll put you over $60 if you drink more than a glass each. …
Both’re on 14th.
In Dupont Circle, Le Pain Quotidien’ll keep you well under $60. Maybe under $40. It’s also French (chicks dig French) and has a nice mood to it at night for a place that’s a chain.
I am looking for dining options near Ford’s Theater. I want something on the moderately priced side and preferably not Italian. I’m considering Cuba Libra despite some mediocre reviews and Coco Sala, although not sure it’s the best choice for dinner. Any advice?
I’d hit Bistro d’Oc before either of those. I don’t consider either of them to be moderately priced.
d’Oc is across from the theater, so if you’re trying to make a show you’re not going to have to mad-dash it through dinner to be on time.
Food’s good. Not innovative, or creative, or even particularly memorable. But respectable bistro cooking in a warm and cozy setting. And there’s a lot to be said for that. I like the lambs’ brains there, and the French onion soup. And I’ve had good cassoulet, too.
It’s run by a chef who is also the owner (Bernard Grenier) — which is almost always another plus in my book.
I’d be wiling to bet that more tourists know about d’Oc than locals, but that doesn’t mean it’s a tourist trap. It’s not. Just the sort of spot that foodies tend to overlook in the rush to check out the next hot thing.
If you do go, I’d love to hear a report back …
Worst dish of the weekend…the “fish taco” at the bar at the Tidewater Inn in Easton.
What showed up was one of those huge tortillas which had been deep fried into a bowl shape and then filled with shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and couple small pieces of rockfish…slathered with sour cream and guac.
Who even makes that anymore or even puts it on a menu?
The crab soup and the snapper turtle soup however, where excellent, rich creamy, served with a decanter of sherry on the side.
The lesson here: when on the Eastern Shore stick with what the Eastern Shore is known for!
I get a kick out of traveling places that are far from city centers, and seeing things on the menu that were trendy 10, 15 years ago.
Bad as you say it was, I’d have been grateful for even a taste of it this past Saturday at about 4 o’clock, in the agonizingly slow march to the final hours of break the fast …
There’s no such thing as a bad dish when you haven’t eaten in 22 hours.
My husband got carryout from there last week. We ordered the chicken shwarma, lamb fateh, baba ghanoug. All were excellent. However, he also said the place was “strange”. I haven’t seen it, so can’t confirm, but he said the space looked almost like a banquet dining hall?
That’s what I was saying, up above — it’s been adapted to fit a different purpose.
The previous tenant was a crab house with live music. It’s surely too big for what kind of a place they mean to be.
But would that keep me from going for the “excellent” food?
La Caraqueña is, by that definition, strange, too. A restaurant fronting a motel. Not a hotel — a motel. And a dingy one at that.
R&R Taqueria and Fast Gourmet: housed in gas stations.
Good food is good food.
If the food’s not good — well, then that’s different. Good food is the be-all, end-all.
Speaking as a passionate food-lover, now — not as a critic, but as someone who regularly devoted his weekends and free time to hunting down great food before ever getting paid to do it … I think if a place has great food, then the oddity or incongruity of its setting or surroundings only adds to the experience.
Certainly it makes for a great story.
“Hey, so I found this great little taco place. Amazing tacos — baby pig, lengua, carnitas, al pastor. Best I’ve ever had in DC.”
“In a gas station.”
Great food, great story. What’s better than that?
I’m so glad that a food writer is finally paying some attention to Bistro D’Oc.
I don’t work for the restaurant but I’ve gone a few times over the past few years and I think the place gets overlooked by the critics so often because it’s not shiny and new.
Don’t get me wrong – don’t expect a night of Komi-esque eating; I’m not saying that. It’s a good place where you can consistently and predictably eat well and they often have great specials. In my book, it’s what a bistro is about – good food, good prices and good cheer. Now how often does that happen in DC restaurants?
Yeah, not often.
I reviewed the place in ’04, and liked it.
But you’re right, it doesn’t get a whole lot of attention from critics. It’s not new, and it’s not high-profile, and places that fall into the middle (neither daring and creative, nor cheap and great value) often get overlooked.
This is a pretty good place that falls into the middle and is also not a chain, and in this area that’s a rare thing.
Arrggh! That mention of a good cassoulet and lambs’ brains! Make me think of a crisp Fall night, but it’s still summer here.
I think a trip to DC is in order! I did find the Angry Dog in Deep Ellum as suggested by another chatter here a month or so ago, but haven’t actually tried the dog yet.
Hey, great to hear from you, ex-Shaw …
I hope Dallas is working out for you.
When you make it out to the Angry Dog, do let us know …
My friend is headed to Israel for half a year and would like to go out for a nice dinner with her best girlfriends before she leaves.
She would prefer to eat something that isn’t readily available in the Middle East, and would like to stick to restaurants close to the Red/Orange lines downtown. Price range is flexible, perhaps $50 per person? Thanks in advance for your help!
How about Masala Art in Tenleytown?
It’s within your budget, she’s not going to find a whole helluva lot of Indian cooking in the Middle East, and it’s also a very relaxing spot to unwind and catch up with friends.
And the food: always good, and sometimes — in the case of the beautifully spiced butter chicken — outstanding.
If you go, drop me a note and let me know how it turned out …
Be well, everyone, eat well and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]