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.
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.
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.
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.
Liberty Tavern, Arlington
The menu at Liam LaCivita’s brawny ode to Americana is rife with abundantly portioned plates of meat and pasta, but it was two comparatively light non-meat plates that impressed me most on a recent visit — a Portuguese-style swordfish with escarole, white beans and housemade sausage in a clam-and-saffron broth, and a simply grilled branzino surrounded by black pellets of squid-ink-soaked fregola nero.
Stopped by R&R Taqueria for breakfast on Saturday. Yum!!
They were really excited because Guy Fieri, from Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives was going to be filming there on the 8th (today).
I will have to start watching it as it should be a fun episode. I counted 8 people working in that small space and they all had bright smiles.
Guy Fieri …
How does he FIND these places?
So unpack that “Yum!!” for us a little — what’d you have there?
Thanks for all the great food advice. If you had to pick the top three meals you have eaten out in DC in the last six months to a year what would you say?
That’s a tough one. There’re a lot of good ones that stand out.
But if you jabbed an oyster fork at me and talked in a low, menacing tone, I’d probably say my meals at Komi, Eola and Sushi Sono.
The latter dinner was highlighted by a recently flown-in aji, or horse mackerel, that had been turned into both sushi and sashimi (the pieces of fish dabbed with minced ginger and scallion) and was presented with its flayed carcass. The carcass was taken back into the kitchen when we were done and tempura-fried. A pinch bowl of Hawaiian sea salt came with it, allowing you to season the fish at the table. Superb, bones and all. It crunched like potato chips.
I’m sure it’s been asked before, but any recs for dining in Savannah? Headed down for a long weekend and was wondering which places we shouldn’t miss. (Feel free to omit anything Deen related….)
I’ll throw this one out there for the chatters who’ve been more recently than I and can (hopefully) turn you onto some newer spots, but the one place you cannot come home without having visited is Mrs. Wilkes’.
It’s boarding-house style, and exactly the kind of meal — huge, heaping dishes of buttered beans, corn, rolls, etc., several kinds of roasted meats — that screams of the South and that you just can’t find up north.
I love that you sit at long communal tables and pass plates with your fellow diners, making acquaintances as you make short work of your meal.
Two questions for you today. 1. Going to Chicago next weekend for a wedding and looking for a restaurant with good atmosphere and great food. 2. What do you think of the announcement that Mike Isabella is opening a Mexican themed restaurant in georgetown in the space that Hook restaurant used to occupy before the fire.? As always love the chat!! Thanks!
How about Ruxbin, whose chef, Edward Kim, cooked under Thomas Keller? The cooking’s a bit more lived-in than that pedigree would suggest. It’s an exciting place to be and eat.
If you go, drop me a note and let me know how things turned out …
And as for Mike Isabella’s plan to open a Mexican restaurant — I always say we need more good Mexican food in this city. I would hope, however, that it’s not over-upscaled and conceptualized; that it’s aim is more simple than elaborate; that, unlike Richard Sandoval’s El Centro D.F., it doesn’t charge you for a basket of chips and salsa; and that it makes the food front and center and doesn’t just trade on its great location and inevitably cool vibe.
Todd, what kind of restaurant do you want to see open up in DC?
Our dining scene has exploded in the past few years, but what’s still missing?
I’ve talked to more than a dozen prominent industry folks over the past year, and they all tell me the same thing — that even if they wanted to do it (and some would love to do it), they just can’t make the numbers work. They think there’s not enough foot traffic in downtown to make a profit off a deli, and they don’t think that people in this city are prepared to pay the kind of money that good deli costs (more than a “gourmet” sandwich at one of those quick-serve spots that feed the lunch crowd).
I get that.
But I don’t see why this deli has to be in DC. And if this deli is in DC, I don’t know why it has to be a sandwich-only spot. If you can have Lebanese and Peruvian and Greek food served at the high-end, then why in the world can’t you have a Jewish restaurant that serves the flush and hungry? What’s more comforting than those foods of the Ashkenazi — matzo ball soup, kugel, bagels and lox, corned beef on rye, brisket and gravy, etc.?
Looks like I will find myself in Columbia, MD on Thursday afternoon and thinking about heading to Red Pearl for lunch. Any “must haves” off the dim sum menu or their regular menu? Thanks!
Here are my back-pocket picks …
Off the cooked-to-order dim-sum menu, the shrimp crepe noodle (ha na) and the shrimp dumplings (har gao), and the fried eggplant stuffed with shrimp.
On the regular menu, I have a hard time resisting the dan dan noodles. I also love a Cantonese-style dish of braised flounder, tofu and pork in an appealingly thin sauce that gives off little hits of white pepper. If it’s not too much food for you, I’d seriously consider the tea-smoked duck. When it’s good, the meat has the smoky lusciousness of good barbecue, and the skin is something else. Tuck the meat and skin into one of the steamed buns, dab it with hoisin, and prepare for happiness.
I’d love to hear a report. Keep me posted.
I am traveling to NYC over the long holiday weekend, and I need recommendations of where to go! It’s my first trip to the city. **blushes** What I’m not looking for: trendy, crowded, expensive.
What I am looking for: A hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop eatery that serves up the city’s best mouth-watering [insert ethnic food here]. Mexican and Indian are always my go-to foods, but I am open to other suggestions!
Are you up for venturing into the boroughs? Because that’s where you’re going to find most of the beat ethnic restaurants in the city.
Sripraphai in Queens is an outstanding Thai restaurant — maybe the best in the city.
If you can get out to Brighton Beach (Coney Island), head to Cafe Glechik, which has superb Ukrainian cooking (I love their plates of veal-stuffed pelmeni).
Cupola Samarkanda II has great Uzbek food. Kulushkat is a great falafel house. Both are in Brooklyn.
Hope that helps. I’ll be interested in hearing what you find. Drop me a note when you’re back …
In Italy I had the good fortune to try pizzoccheri, a kind of buckwheat pasta typically cooked with potatoes or cabbage and covered in an absurd amount of melted cheese. With winter coming up, are you aware of any local place that serves this magnificently decadent comfort dish?
None that I’m aware of, no.
I’ve never tried it. Sounds interesting.
I love that you say it’s covered in an “absurd amount of melted cheese.” Because, of course, only we Americans do that to our pastas. Only we Americans portion our sauce so indiscriminately, confusing a condiment for a gravy.
I am a regular follower and really enjoy reading your chats.
On Saturday night, I am headed to Rasika for a birthday dinner. I have heard rave reviews of the restaurant but am not well versed in Indian fare. I am pretty adventurous and have been to Indique once (which I enjoyed many years ago). What do you and the other chatters recommend I try?
The one dish that everybody’s going to be in accord about is the palak chaat — delicately fried leaves of baby spinach drizzled with yogurt and tamarind sauce. Light, elegant, memorable.
Among the main courses, I’m partial to the lobster moilee — the sweet claw and tail meat is flattered by the sauce, a subtly powerful curry of ginger, green chilies, and coconut milk — the tandoori lamb chops and the lamb rogan josh.
My pick for dessert: a warm apple beignet with cardamom ice cream.
I wrote last week about meeting up with my friend halfway between Baltimore and DC. We ended up going to Pasta Plus, which was delicious and affordable. (I just wanted to mention, though, that I almost got in 2 car accidents on the way there because of MD drivers failing to signal or look when merging.)
Anyway, regarding the experience at Pasta Plus, my friend and I thought that if we ordered meats, they were going to come on a bed of pasta, but we were wrong. Instead, pasta was offered as a side, and our meats were presented on their own. The food was delicious all around, but we really were expecting a pasta-centric meal. Did we order wrong?
I’m not sure I understand.
If you order pasta, you get pasta. The meats come with sides of pasta, but those sides aren’t full-blown dishes — they’re just sides of spaghetti and marinara, if I’m not mistaken.
I know you’re tweaking me with that Maryland driving anecdote, but even so I can raise you one. I was in Virginia two nights last week. One night, I nearly witnessed an accident, and was nearly in one myself; the other night, there were two separate incidents, one right after another — one almost involving me, one involving the car ahead of me — that made me grateful to pull off the road. Now add to that the horrible traffic and the roads that are often illogical.
In Chicago, try West Town Tavern, just west of the Dan Ryan.
Killer wine list, great, comfortable, unpretentious cooking, and a cozy atmosphere. It’s the kind of place that will consistently leave you pleased and warm/fuzzy.
Hard to go to Chicago without a meal at Topolobampo/Frontera – Rick Bayless is nothing new on the dining scene, but still consistent. Chicago’s also got a slew of froth-and-foam modern dining if that’s your thing, though I’d probably save my pennies for a run by Wiener Circle afterwards.
I would, too.
Or a zip over to Hot Doug’s. Or a stop into one of the great taquerias. Or an Italian beef sandwich on the street somewhere. Or one of the innumerable, it seems, neighborhood holes in the wall for pierogies and a beer …
Thanks for the tip about West Town Tavern. What sorts of dishes do they do?
You HAVE to go to Olde Pink House. It’s adorable for a lovely, romantic meal and they had the most delicious sweet potato and vidalia onion ravioli in a mushroom, walnut cream sauce. It’s been two years and I still dream about it today as you can tell.
Also, I second Mrs. Wilkes’, it’s a treat.
Thanks for chiming in on this …
Who else can help out our Savannah traveler?
I had been waiting a whole week to ask this question and got stuck in a meeting this morning and nearly missed my chance!! My parents are coming to town for a winery visit this Saturday, and I’m looking for a good restaurant out that way (we’ll probably stick to the closer-in wineries in Loudon County) that won’t need a reservation on a weekend evening. We’ll eat anything but ideally would like a fun atmosphere. Thanks!
If you visit Chrysalis Vineyards, in Aldie (a five-minute drive from Middleburg, and it’s producing some of the best wines in Loudon), then you’re only about a 15-minute drive from Rangoli, in South Riding — a very comfortable, very colorful Indian place with often-zippy cooking.
I’d call over there in the afternoon, and give them a loose window when you’d be coming.
You’re also about a 20-minute drive from Chantilly and Sichuan Village, where you can get a killer ma po tofu, and excellent versions of kung pao chicken (order it Chinese-style), ants on a stick (better than it sounds — think ground pork clinging to tender sheets of noodle), and garlicky pickled cucumbers (you’ll need them to provide respite from the fire).
I have to take a rather gruesome test on Saturday morning in Odenton, MD. I was hoping to reward myself with lunch afterwards. Where should I go?
I’ll send you to the place I’d probably hit myself, and that’s Grace Garden, directly across from Ft. Meade.
It squats in a dingy strip mall, and looks for all the world like one of those dubious hyphenate places that serves a medley of General Tso’s, cheesesteaks, pizza and falafel — the kind of place where the only thing that’s greasier than the burgers is the floor, and you DO NOT want to know the provenance of the meat.
But it’s not that kind of place. And the food — Szechuan, mostly — is authentic and often really tasty. Occasionally, more than tasty: memorable, even.
The thing to get, here, is the fish noodles. The dish looks like pasta, but it’s actually fish (among other things) — extruded through a colander-like device and dropped into a boiling pot. The noodles are tossed with strips of prosciutto and sliced green onions. I just wish the preparation were slightly less oily. But it’s wonderfully addictive.
And you can do a LOT worse nearby.
I am looking for a nice Fall Tasting menu to take my wife any suggestions?
I’d do the 5-course tasting menu at Eola.
It also happens to be the only meal you can do at Eola.
There are, however, several iterations — an all-veg menu and (its polar opposite) an all-offal menu, in addition to the standard prix fixe.
When will the roundup of what area restaurants will be offering for Thanksgiving be up? My family was in town last year and will be here again this year – I found your list to be a great resource! We ate at Corduroy last year and it was a good choice – just looking for somewhere different this year. Thanks!
Soon. Very soon.
And thanks for the feedback …
What type of cuisine do you crave the most?
At the moment, probably sushi.
Beyond the fact that I love it and would gladly eat it four or five times a week, I think that part of the reason I choose it has to do with my job.
Sushi is so stylistically different from everything else that’s out there that it stands out for me.
For one thing, there’s no aroma to sushi. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about that before, but it’s odd, isn’t it? A food without a scent. I think about that every time I sit down at a sushi bar, funny as that sounds.
I’m not saying that this is a virtue, that it has no aroma — merely pointing out how very unlike other cuisines it is.
I find sushi — good sushi — to be a wonderful change-of-pace from the richness of French and French-based cooking, and hearty comfort food. Occasionally, it feels like an antidote, too.
Anti-MD driver here again. I think we were just used to having meals where it’s really just a generous bed of pasta with meat and sauce on top. Perhaps it’s a bit pedestrian. Or perhaps it’s a regional thing? If so, I would put it in the same category as the chicken fingers you get from Chinese restaurants in the northeast, which are chicken breast strips that are battered and fried into a very airy, but crunchy appetizer. Do you know what I’m talking about? I have no idea where to find them here!
It’s a red-checkered-tablecloth kind of thing.
Pasta Plus isn’t that kind of place.
As for those chicken breast strip thingies fried into a light and crunchy appetizer … I’m coming up blank. Sorry …
Can you share some ideas of a great (or really just pretty good) Thai place in NoVa?
We’re driving from Alexandria and meeting a friend driving from Vienna and it would be great to find someplace mid-way. This friend moved to New Jersey this summer and hasn’t had Thai since, which is horrifying to us since we eat Thai several times a month. So–what do you think would fit the bill?
Bangkok 54, in Arlington. On Columbia Pike.
Get the roasted tofu with basil and chilis and the shrimp and butternut squash in red curry, and you will be guaranteed a great meal.
I was just in, and am still thinking about both those dishes …
It’s time to run.
Thanks, everyone, for the great questions and comments and all the great tips, too.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]
Re: West Town Tavern –
Susan and Drew Goss used to run Zinfandel in River North, where Susan did a new menu each month based on a different part of the country, and Drew matched it with wine (where possible/drinkable). About ten years ago they decided to open West Town, which took the best of their regional cooking and kept it on the menu year round. Saying it’s comfort food doesn’t seem to give it much credit, but it’s fairly accurate – Susan does a (don’t laugh) life-changingly good zinfandel braised pot roast.
And I’m not laughing, but what do people really mean when they say a dish was life-changing? Because they’re not saying, most of them, that they’re about to ditch their jobs and become cooks. And there are a million other ways to hyperbolize. I’m not being facetious, I’d really like to know …
Enlighten me, chatters.