Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 11 AM

Every Tuesday at 11, food and 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.

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.

Vermilion, Alexandria
The honesty and simplicity of chef Tony Chittum’s make-it-local-or-make-it-from-scratch approach has never been in question. But these days there’s a newfound coherence in his plates, a clarity that brings even his heartiest, most soulful plates into tight focus. The desserts, with Tiffany MacIsaac in the fold now as guru of sweets for all outlets in the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, have never been better.

* Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, DC
This jumping fish house in the 14th St. corridor is Jeff and Barbara Black’s fifth place, and by far their most fun — in the room and on the plate. The other surprise? The excellent value — a reminder that among the benefits of a mini-empire is the ability to leverage high-volume purchasing into cut-rate deals. Don’t miss the marvelous twist on mariscos, a seafood-laden salsa with fresh-fried chips.

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.

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.

Shawafel, DC
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.

* new this week

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Dishes I’m Still Thinking About …

Since you asked …

Green Tea Leaf Salad – Burma – Chinatown I only had 2 bites off another person’s plate, but that was enough to make me still crave it, FOUR YEARS later!

Two bites, four years later.

It’s funny that we can remember some things like this, and yet forget names of people we’ve met, important dates, necessary information like our locker numbers, etc.

The power of food …

Good morning, everyone … If anybody else out there has got a good one, a dish you’re still thinking about — of recent vintage, or aged like the one above — I’d love to hear it.

Where and what have you been eating?

Cheverly, MD

For my birthday last weekend we took your advice and headed all the way to Reston to try Passionfish. Were we ever pleased we did!

From the moment we entered it was almost a perfect experience. With a toddler in tow were were made to feel comfortable, he was welcomed with some things to play with and treated like a guest. At the same time is was a nice, classy space which was quiet (but not too quiet since there was a toddler as I mentioned).

The creamy smoked fish spread they start you off with was divine, and my husband and I were moaning over my hamachi crudo with grapefruit, jalapeno and sweet soy as well as his crunchy, peanut-crusted kung pao calamari. It got better with the lovely entrees with flavors of red curry on one and porcini on the other, both designed to allow the top quality fish shine.

I grew up on the Maine coast where fish is so fresh and I am always missing that around here– this surpassed my expectations and was one of the best fish meals I have had. And they actually had real food on the children’s menu to boot– a better (and larger) piece of fish than I have been served at many other places.

Dessert on the house for my b-day (still drooling over the donut holes with coffee Bavarian creme) and a perfect evening was complete.

Thank you for your recommendation, this was a wonderful experience for us and they deserve the accolades they get at Passionfish– especially for families looking for fine dining.

I love that whole fish. And that hamachi. And those donut holes with coffee creme.

I’m glad to hear it worked out so well.

And real food on the children’s menu! It doesn’t strike you as the sort of place where you’d take a kid, but any place that has taken the time to develop a real menu for kids is saying, in effect: Bring ’em on in.

As always, it’s the other diners that you worry about, as a parent with a kid at the table. The stares. The glares. The sneers. But if a restaurant is that willing to have kids, then it ought to be that willing to smooth things over with diners if something should go wrong.

Washington, DC

Yesterday, the Washington Post had an online piece saying that Ray’s the Steaks East River had closed to “reformat.” Do you have any info on whether the place is being “reformatted” with extreme prejudice? It would be a shame if they closed down for good.

I was just at Ray’s the Steaks at East River, and spoke to one of the servers, who told me that they’re going to shut down for a couple of months in order to “renovate.”

Renovate, after only a year and change of business? I thought that sounded odd.

The good news is, the staff will not be without work during that time — I’m told they’ll be serving, as usual, in the dining room at the newest Ray’s, Ray’s to the Third, in Arlington.

I, too, hope the place isn’t closing. Though I have to admit, my meal there was the weakest of any I’ve had since it opened. Still a good deal, still a fun vibe, but not nearly the happy chow of an experience it had been.

Alexandria, VA

Do you know of any nice bars and/or restaurants in the D.C. metro area (including Old Town Alexandria) where a respectable, female baby boomer might have a possibility of meeting a respectable, male baby boomer?

Restaurant Eve in Old Town. Bibiana and BLT Steak in DC. Any high-end hotel.

I don’t know about respectable — who knows these things just by looking? — but there’s definitely men there in the range of age you’re looking for.

Anybody else have any suggestions for our lovelorn foodie?

Christina, Atlas District

Todd,

I’m sure you’re on this already, but if not: the happy hour at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on 14th is pretty fantastic.

I was in on Thursday and ordered a lb. of Addie’s Mussels ($9), and my husband had the shrimp po’ boy w/ a mound of fries ($8). All the food was delicious–the seafood was sweet, plump, and well-seasoned–and the portions were very generous.

The drink specials were a steal ($5 for my very decent glass of bubbly (Gloria Ferrer?) and $3 for his microbrew drafts). I love that they serve the sparkling wine in a cocktail coup.

The most striking thing about our visit was the service: the bar was packed, but every single staff member we interacted with was gracious, accommodating, and very friendly. It was standing-room only when we ordered our food, and ten minutes later when it came out, they’d already scouted out seats for us to to enjoy it. And it was less “fakey” nice from the servers than genuinely kind interaction.

This was our first time in, and we were extremely impressed. I can see this becoming a regular spot (if only it were on H Street instead!).

Conversely: have you noticed that the table service at Churchkey seems to be suffering lately? I’ve gotten either flat-out attitude or brusque treatment the last two times I’ve been there. It seems like the popularity has gone to their heads and the servers now think its OK to be flippant and take guests for granted. Really hoped for better for this place.

Until recently I was a server myself, and it is not professional to strike an attitude with a customer who approaches you asking to order because she arrived more than ten minutes ago and has been waiting for someone–anyone—to take her drink order. He should have just apologized for the oversight and taken my order there, rather than dismissively saying “yeah, I’ll be right over to your table,” and continuing to close his checks. I get that your shift was cut and you want to get out of here. I also get more accomplished service at Wendy’s. Good beer does not make up for careless service.

I think there’s a good reason Pearl Dive is so packed, without any real reviews out there for folks to go on.

It’s partly a case of right place, right time. But also — superbly fresh seafood and fish, mostly simply prepared, and served at a really excellent price. A lively vibe. Good wines and cocktails. Killer fried chicken. Some very good pies …

I haven’t noticed what you’ve noticed at Churchkey, but I can say that I’ve seen a lot of brusque, haphazard service the last couple of months around town.

Arlington VA

Todd,

We went to the Grey Market this weekend and got a spectacular Pork Belly Bahn Mi sandwich.

What’s your take on the best place to get this again? I’m reading a lot of conflicting opinions about places in Eden Center so I’d figure I’d come to you. Thanks!

When’s the next Grey Market going to be? I’ve been eager to go.

I really like the banh mi at both Nhu Lan — the meatball, in particular — and Song Que (run by the Lai family, which owns and operates Four Sisters).

I’ve also had good ones at Banh Mi DC Sandwich. It’s not in the Eden Center, but off Rte. 50 in Falls Church.

Arlington, VA

Looking for a Southern Indian resturant in the area – a hole in the wall is best! Thanks šŸ™‚

Woodlands is one of the best. There’re locations in Langley Park and Fairfax.

The weekend buffet there is extensive, cheap and very satisfying.

It’s not a southern Indian restaurant, but Curry Mantra, in Fairfax, has some of the best southern Indian cooking in the area — the dosas, for one, are superlative (tear off a hunk of the masala dosa, filled with onions and potatoes, and dip it in the accompanying coconut chutney — fantastic … addictive … you’ll be thinking about it for weeks afterward). Excellent versions, also, of baingan bhartha and iddly.

 

Del Ray

To the respectable female baby-bommer, my uncle is a single respectable male baby-boomer, and he wonders the same thing. I think Restaurant Eve is definitely the place to start!

Or from the sound of it, maybe your uncle is the place to start. ; )

Thanks for chiming in …

 

Alexandria

Hi Todd,

I was wondering if you could suggest a venue for a birthday dinner for me? It will just be me and my husband, and I will be 13 weeks pregnant.

I would like to do something “special,” but have been feeling so terrible lately that it has been hard to think of picking anywhere exciting. Something on the blander side might be better- our dinner at Cava on Saturday ended with me throwing up the short ribs in the bathroom and my husband rushing for the check šŸ™ Italian has been sitting pretty well, and I was thinking maybe Filomena, but we went there for my birthday last year so a change could be fun.

And (I feel bad giving you all of these qualifications!!), I have not been able to stay awake past 8:30 or so, on a good night, so it would be awesome to go somewhere where we wouldn’t feel out of place eating on the early side – maybe at 6:30 or 7. Thank you so much!!

This sounds awfully familiar …

What you need is the sophisticated comfort of a place like Liberty Tavern, in Arlington.

You might also give a long look to the Atlas Room, on H St. NE, which is cozy and romantic and also serves up a stylish brand of comfort food.

Or Cashion’s, which has been around for nearly two decades, and has the casually elegant thing down cold.

One more pick: Salt & Pepper, in the Palisades. If your sensitive stomach can handle crab, the crabcakes are fantastic, some of the best I’ve had in the city this past year.

Washington, DC

If you were going to nominate a local chef to be on the next edition of “The Next Iron Chef”, who would it be and why?

Michel Richard.

He has the outsize personality and the chops — in fact, he has more chops than anybody else the Food Network is going to find to shove out there and shine the lights on.

And he’s big. I think it’d be great to see a chef on TV who looks like he likes food.

I think it’d be interesting as hell to see Johnny Monis up there, but he’s so shy and celebrity-averse that despite his dark good looks and considerable talent I just can’t see it coming to pass.

Fairfax

Hey Todd: When did your colleague Kate Nerenberg leave to become a food blogger with livingsocial?

End of summer.

Katie’s doing well and enjoying her new gig. We miss hearing her talk of dish obsessions and random cravings.

arlington, va

Are you annoyed that Tom Seitsema stole your place, R&R Taqueria, and then put it in his fall guide?

How do you steal a place?

I’ve been enamored of R&R for a while now, it’s true — ever since going there for the first time with friends last winter, and then finding that my first experience wasn’t an aberration at all, and then going a third and fourth and fifth time and discovering an array of new dishes that had not been there before — cochinita, or baby pig, tacos, for instance, or sopes topped with tender cubed tongue; dishes that suggested that owner Rodrigo Alban-Torres was in possession of a vast store of knowledge and experience.

I’m very happy to see that a place like this, a small place like this — in a gas station, of all things — is getting the attention it deserves. With any luck, there’ll be expansion; Alban-Torres is opening in the food court at White Marsh mall this Fall, and has drafting-board plans to launch a sit-down restaurant, too (with Mayan dishes). 

Seems to me that’s a pretty great thing for all of us who love good Mexican cooking and can’t get enough of it.

 

Del Ray, VA

It’s so great that you like Vermilion. We’re on our way to becoming regulars there (when we aren’t next door at Bistro Lafayette).

Love the cocktails, and yes the desserts are amazing! The plate of “cookies” is our favorite right now. So, no question, just an agreement!

I’ve always liked the place. I guess you could say that now I like-like it. ; )

My most recent meal was the single best experience I’ve ever had there — everything was more delicious, more fully realized.

Cleveland Park

I was surprised to see that Jaleo edged out Estadio in Tom Seistema’s recent Fall Dining guide as his favorite place for Spanish eats. Which do you prefer? Jose is the master but I’ve always felt that Estadio has a much more rustic and authentic Spanish feel and menu.

I like them both, and see them very differently — in spite of the fact they’re both doing tapas. They’re totally different experiences … their feel, their food, their reasons for being … For that reason I don’t prefer one over the other. 

This weekend

Hi Todd- I need a recommendation for a fun place for 4 couples to go this saturday night. Proof and Estadio have been discussed, but not sure we’ll get into either with so little time. Downtown location preferred- any type of food is ok. Thanks!!

I’d try for Pearl Dive, but you’d better show up at the stroke of 5 or you’re probably not going to find a table that’s big enough.

I’d also think about: Bibiana, Fiola and Ardeo+Bardeo (I’m assuming when you say downtown, you don’t literally mean the center of the city.)

Philly help

Hi Todd,

I’m going to Philadelphia for the big annual craft show at the Museum of Art in acouple of weeks and was wondering if you have any suggestion for a restaurant. I’m not familiar with the scene at all. I’m looking for a place with wonderful atmosphere, exquisite food and not too expensive. : )

Keep up the great work. Loved your recent reviews of Graffiato and Rogue.

If you can, get yourself to Garces Trading Co.

Really terrific pizzas and pastas, staff-meal sorts of main courses, and a slew of memorable desserts, including house-baked pastries.

They also do a very good brunch, with one of the best renditions of French toast I’ve ever had: homemade cranberry bread, cut thick, dipped in egg and fried up til it’s nice and crisp, and topped with a pistachio-rum compote. It sounds like too many flavors for its own good, an overproduced mishmash, but it comes together perfectly.

I’d love just two bites of it right now …

As you can tell, I’m overdue for some lunch. Later, chatters …

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[missing you, TEK … ]

 

 

 

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