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 . . .
Bangkok 54, Arlington
My most recent meal at this checkerboard-paletted hole in the wall on Columbia Pike was a quick one, consisting of just three dishes—two of them as good as anything I’ve eaten in the past six months. Irregular slices of freezed, then slow-roasted tofu coated in a dry sauce of chilis and dressed up with tiny leaves of fried basil doesn’t sound particularly prepossessing, but I’ve never had a tofu dish I’ve loved more. If you’re a meat eater and make a point of swearing off any and all dishes that feature tofu, then you need a policy re-think. A red curry was every bit its equal—the heat and lushness of the sauce knitting together a plate of perfectly cooked shrimp, thick squares of tender, roasted butternut squash, toasted cashews and a mound of judiciously prepared brown rice.
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.
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.
Fabio Trabocchi’s edge-of-Penn Quarter restaurant has put its tentative beginnings behind it. The dishes emerging from the brick-framed, herb-potted kitchen find the prodigiously talented chef moving further and further from the controlled elegance of his work at the late Maestro. They also find him cooking with a renewed confidence and conviction. The best of these plates—an astonishingly flavorful ragu of wild hare with thick bands of papardelle, a double-cut, prosciutto-wrapped veal chop with toasted hazelnuts that accent the sweetness and nuttiness of the meat, a bowl of tender meatballs in a tomato sauce that frankly puts most Italian grandmothers to shame—marry rusticity with refinement. Desserts—including a fabulous cone of sugar-dusted bomboloni, with pots of apple marmalade and cinnamon gelato—remain a rousing finish.
* Fishnet, College Park
Ferhat Yalcin, a former GM at Corduroy, has opened this appealing fish house not in Penn Quarter, or Clarendon, or Bethesda, but in a tiny store front on a quiet back street adjoining fast food-drenched Rte. 1 in College Park. That’s the first bit of daring. Of greater reward to the bargain-minded diner, Yalcin departs from the fried whiting atop white bread model you find at places like Horace & Dickey’s, offering instead a changing daily lineup of fresh fish—including, at the moment, wild king salmon, bluefish, hake, calamari and mahi mahi. You choose whether you’d like it grilled or fried, and select one of several housemade sauces (aiolis or tartar). Initially, the sandwiches came on a ciabatta roll that was too big; now they come on Kaiser rolls that are slightly too poofy. The fish is the thing—marvelously fresh, generously sliced, and carefully prepared. There are fish sticks, too, and they might be the best fish sticks you’ll ever eat. The daily soup—made from trimmed bits, and built from a homemade stock—is a must-get. Excellent fries and coleslaw, too.
* new this week
Curious, what are your plans for Thanksgiving? Any good wines you recommend that goes well with turkey? Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!
I’m going to recommend — and heartily — a Norton, and not just because I wrote a book that revolved around it.
I think it’s a wine that’s made for Thanksgiving. It’s a big, meaty, mouth-filling red, but it’s also got a lot of acidity to it. That acidity is part of what makes it strange — only part — but it’s what makes it such a good thing to have on the T-Day table, because it cuts right through all those starches, gravies, and roasted or smoked meats. Norton benefits greatly from being paired with food, and especially food like this.
For whites, I like have any or all of the following around: Riesling (an Auslese), Pinot Gris, and Gewurttraminer.
Well, they just got changed around — not that I’m complaining. I have a lot to be thankful for. This weekend, my wife gave birth to our second child — a boy, Theo Elias. He’s doing wonderfully, happy and healthy and, as my good friend Sue would say, cute as a bug’s butt.
Have you made it over to Seasonal Pantry yet? I am looking to book a party there am looking for feed back.
I enjoyed it.
It’s intimate, it’s convivial, and there’s some pretty darn good cooking going on there in that makeshift kitchen that chef/owner Dan O’Brien’s rigged up. Go.
Who do you complain to when the manager is HORRIBLE!
The other night I took a out of town friend to Proof, which was both our first time when the manager preteniously and rudely informed us we could not have a table even though we were there at 5 minutes before the 10 PM cut off.
We hadn’t planned to order any food other than bar food and simply wanted a nice bottle of wine where we could sit since the bar was full. Considering had we been sat, we would’ve ordered items totaling at least half the current bars combined tab!
I’d be interested in hearing the other side of this story.
I’m not saying I doubt your sincerity — I just would like to hear Proof’s version.
Restaurants vary in how they deal with customers coming in right under the gun like this. Some don’t mind. Some do.
I don’t have a problem with a place for taking one stance or the other. I think I actually probably side with the latter. It makes for a longer night for the staff, and a staff is a thing you don’t want to run ragged when you’re operating a business that’s running for 16 or more hours a day.
Two weeks ago I asked your advice for mom n’ pop type spots in NYC. I was able to make it to two of the spots you recommended – Sripraphai and Kulushkat.
First, let me say I fell in love with the Queens/Astoria area. Very vibrant, ethnic, and populated. So very me. The thai restaurant in Queens we visited on our first night, Sripraphai, was a pleasant experience. However, the cash-only payment option was a little puzzling, and off-putting, especially for a place that seemed to be doing so well.
I ordered tofu drunken noodles (my go-to thai dish) and a curry puff appetizer. The noodles were ok, but the curry puff was a treat! A golden-crispy outside followed by a fluffy, curry-flavored inside of potatoes sure hit the spot!
We visited Kulushkat in Brooklyn the next day before we left town. All three of us had the spicy falafel and all three of us couldn’t stop raving about how good it was! We also tried the spicy fries and moroccon cigars. If I ever got a craving for falafel – I would seriously consider driving up to NYC for a falafel and fry fix.
Funny story: The server behind the counter was very friendly and conversed with us throughout our meal. My Indian friend was discussing how her aunt had to use a 4 pepper scale on her American husband when they first got married, because he was not accustomed to spicy foods. She started him off with one pepper in his food and slowly increased the amount of spice until he was at a 4-pepper scale of spicy food.
The guy behind the counter agreed that “American spicy” is very different and scaled down compared to other ethnic foods. When Kulushkat first opened, their falafel was too spicy and they had to scale back. However, I’m accustomed to spice and thought it wasn’t spicy enough (food can never be spicy enough for me)! Anyway, Kulushkat was excellent – the food was amazing and the server was friendly and engaged us in interesting conversation.
Thanks again for the recommendations. Although we didn’t get around to the others on your list, we definitely will in the future (we’re already planning our New Year’s trip there). I had an amazing, memorable first trip to NYC and I owe part of that to your recommendations!
I’m glad that worked out so well. To me, it’s not a satisfying trip to New York if I haven’t hit a couple of the amazing places out in the boroughs like this.
One more I should have given you, but I didn’t think of at the time, and it’s actually in Manhattan — two locations, actually. The place is called Gazala. Druze (pronounced “DROO-zee”) food. (As opposed to “Jersey food”). It’ll remind you a bit of Lebanese cooking, or Israeli cooking. But it’s more seasoned, and a bit more robust. I love the cooking there.
I am avid reader of Kliman Online, Need your help. Trying to think of the name of a restaurant that was in DC in the ’70s that served excotic food. Ratllesnake, alligator, etc. Thanks.
Are you thinking of Dominique’s?
I never ate there, myself. But I remember doing an article for the late Washington Weekly — I was 17 at the time — about restaurants that were preparing for the second Reagan inaugural, and Dominique’s was one of the places I interviewed. It was laying in for extra alligator and all sorts of unusual game meats for the fat cats then rolling into town.
Hi Todd – we ventured to Ripple this past weekend and sadly we were disappointed.
Although the cocktails were exciting and the charcruterie board a delight, the rest of the food had such a heavy hand with the salt.
So much so that one of the diners had to send his food back and I played with my quinoa risotto with my fork as I could feel myself swelling up from all the salt! The other dishes fared a bit better salt-wise but instead weren’t hot or even warm enough. I’m guessing this is probably from having been fired too soon in the kitchen. Is this a hit or miss type of restaurant in your opinion or has your experience there been pretty consistent?
It’s not a hit-or-miss place.
That’s not much of a consolation to you, knowing that you just whiffed on it. But I’d go back if you’re in the neighborhood.
Is it still a good time to eat some crabs? I haven’t eaten them all summer and have a craving for some nice steamed blue crabs! Cantler’s or other crabhouses (Harris, Kentmorr come to mind) still serving some good crabs?
You just missed out.
Officially, crab season ends December 15, but for all intents and purposes it’s over now.
Carrie Schedler, one of our interns, spoke to a manager at the terrific Cantler’s Riverside Inn who told her that up until this past weekend, about 75 percent of their crabs were local Maryland blues, but over the weekend, that dried up.
Cantler’s intends to offer them when their crab fishermen can get them, but the manager said their guys have mostly brought in their pots and are going after what’s in season now — oysters.
I am the General Manger of Cuba Libre Restaurant, here in DC. I was appalled to read last week’s chat where a guest wrote about the poor service they had received at our establishment. Any experience like that is truly inexcusable.
We take all comments and concerns regarding our restaurant very seriously. We use them as teaching opportunities for all involved so that we can continue to provide a better experience for future guests. We take pride in our work and want others to enjoy Cuba Libre whenever they visit.
That said, I would greatly appreciate it if the anonymous writer would send me an email at email@example.com so I may investigate and learn more. I’m hoping with your help, and further information, we can prevent this from reoccurring.
Thanks for writing in. I appreciate it.
I’m glad this forum can be a kind of middle-ground.
I hope you hear back from last week’s chatter, and I’ll be interested to hear how this resolves itself …
Just got back from Chicago and had a great time. Was able to snag a reservation at MOTO restaurant in Chicago and it was very good.
It reminded my wife and I of MiniBar in some ways but the MOTO guys produce more ‘wacky’ dishes (A dessert with singer Michael Bolton’s face on a cookie, in honor of the 20th anniversary of him winning a grammy for ‘When a Man Love’s a Woman.’)
The staff was very accomodating and pleasant and very thrilled for being awarded their first michelin star earlier in the week.
As always love the weekly chat! Thanks!
You’re a braver man than I — I don’t think I could eat a dessert with a picture of Michael Bolton’s face on it. It might even ruin the meal.
Love to hear about some of the other dishes you enjoyed …
Congrats Todd on your second child!
Forgive my ignorance, what winery would you recommend that specializes in Norton grapes?
I don’t think you can do better than Chrysalis.
And incidentally, Chrysalis also makes a fabulous Viognier — another good pick for the T-day table.
Other Nortons: Rockbridge, Cooper, Horton and Bluemont.
Congrats on the new baby!
What’s you opinion of Thai X-ing these days? Ate there recently and found the food to be fairly lacking.A bit above your standard Thai takeout, but nit by much. Also, $40 a head seemed pricey for the meal that was served.
Should have made the not much longer trip to Bangkok 54 based on your description above. Surprised you describe Bangkok 54 as a “checkerboard-paletted hole in the wall.” I feel confident that you’ve eaten in a hundred places that are more of a hole in the wall than it.
Inside’s most definitely not a hole in the wall. It’s a very smart, exciting setting. But outside? OK, maybe not the most hole in the wall of the hole in the walls I’ve seen, it’s true — La Caraqueña certainly beats it. But definitely a hole in the wall.
B54 is about as good as it’s ever been — impressive, given that it’s been around about 7 years now.
I haven’t been to Thai X-ing in a while. It’s funny. After I first reviewed it, in 2005, and the crowds started to come, I used to hear that Taw — owner/chef Taw Vigsittaboot — was none too pleased that I’d made his life so difficult. It can be tough, for a tiny operation like that, to accommodate more people and changing expectations. I felt bad. On the other hand, he’s still going, and seems to be thriving with the “expansion.”
Congratulations on baby Theo! Are you going to turn him into a baby foodie or start him out on some Gerber? Maybe Theo can try some of those baby ramen jars I see that Gerber has been rolling out.
If only …
No Gerber for the foreseeable future.
I did dip my pinkie into a glass of Pinot Noir the other night, and he didn’t make a face. And he’ll get some wine this weekend. But other than breast milk, that’s the extent of his adventures …
Other Grammy winners from 1991: R.E.M, LL Cool J, B.B. King, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Cole, Van Halen, Sting, Patti LaBelle. And they chose to honor Michael Bolton?
That reflects really poor judgement to the point that I’d have to question their culinary judgement or it’s a level of irony I’m really impressed with.
I’d eat a dessert with Stan Getz’s face on it. Or Diz’s face. But that’s about it.
Whose face would you all like to see on a dessert, if you could see one face staring up at you before you dig in?
For some reason, I keep coming up with faces that I wouldn’t want to see — that would so totally turn me off that I’d stop eating …
Some of our other dishes included:
A take on fried chicken and mashed potatos, with the chicken being dehydrated into powder form ‘Cuban Cigars’ dish is served in an ashtry with what appears to be three half smoked cigars but are really three different sandwiches They then take some liquid nitrogen which creates the ashes in the tray.
Edible menu: The menu seemed to be printed on like seaweed (they have a patent and would not disclose how the technique is done). There were components to a sushi roll, that you put inside the menu and rolled up inside a sushi mat.
Sage Oil: When you sit down to begin your meal the place a candle on your table and light it. You think it is a regular candle until for one of the courses they blow out the candle and start pouring it over your food. At first you think it is wax until they explain to you that it is really sage oil that has been coming up to temperature during your meal until it is ready.
‘Smores Bomb’ A dessert that looked like a chocolate bomb (with a wick) that they light table side. Inside the chocolate ball are the components for a smores. Lighting the wick helps liquify the contents inside. It was a one bite dessert that packed a lot of flavor.
We were the last seating for the night, so we got to talk and converse with the chefs (who were preparing food in the dining room) and servers on a more personal level and one of those chefs used to be in DC and was raving about how they missed late night meals at Ravi Kabob.
Oh and the Michael Bolton Dessert, we were told it was okay to take our spoons and smash his face in.
You buried the lede!
See, now I LOVE the guys at MOTO. That’s pretty damn wonderful.
I can think of a lot of faces I’d love to do that to.
How about the rest of you?
The BF and I are stealing away to the Eastern Shore (around St. Michael’s) for some R&R next weekend.
Any dining recommendations out there?
Talbot 208 is a must. Ask for a seat around the bar as opposed to the rather stolid dining room. This’ll also give you more options when it comes to ordering; I generally prefer composing a meal there from small plates and pairing them with wines.
The other is Ava’s, which is a wine bar and also does pizzas.
Hope that helps, and I’d love to hear about your dining experiences when you get back. Enjoy yourselves …
Back in the late 80’s maybe early 90’s my bro and I went to Blues Alley to see Brnaford Marsalis at Blues Alley. We had drinks and appetizers. Towards the end of the show Branford asked an audience member up on the stage and this little old African American lady came up to the mike. She started to sing and I fell in love, It was the late and Dc ‘s won Shirley Horn. She puts Beyonce, Aquilera, and any of today’s female singers to shame. They could all elarn a thing or two from downloading a few of her songs and lsitening to her phrasing and tempo.
A perfect voice for a day like today.
Miles Davis, by the way, was a big fan and supporter. They had a similar way with phrasing.
My best friend and I have been cookie baking since we were little, we are now 27 and 28 and still do it. We make all sorts of holiday shapes, but we also have made the Beatles, McJagger (mainly because the mouth was so big) and other notable musicians from time to time, but no Michael Bolton. We use the gingerbread man cookie cutters for those. It can be pretty hilarious. I would not eat a Marilyn Manson cookie…
Or how about a Charlie Manson cookie?
A Tom Clancy cookie?
A James Lipton cookie?
A Rachael Ray cookie?
I’ve got the inlaws coming to down and it seems they’re always happiest with traditional Italian. Anywhere you can suggest that has the regulars like lasagne, etc but also has interesting things for more adventurous eaters? My husband and I eat everything and love trying new things.
Take them to Fiola.
They can have the lasagnette and the meatballs, and you and your husband can branch out and eat more adventurously.
I think you’d have a good time, assuming you can get in.
Fiola is really, really good right now.
This may be a bit off topic or beyond scope, but I’m spending Thanksgiving out of the area with a family that is very knowledgeable about wine. Since I am not, is there a vineyard or local winery near DC or in Northern Virginia that has a quality wine or something unique to our region?
It’s not off topic at all …
We’ve been talking, in part, about Norton, which is as unique to the region as Smithfield hams and Virginia peanuts.
You could also look for bottles of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, which are establishing themselves in this region, too. Or the aforementioned Viognier, which Virginia is becoming very well known for.
Chrysalis, as I mentioned, is close. It’s in Aldie, five minutes from Middleburg. Also close … Pearmund Cellars, in Warrenton, and Breaux Vineyards, in Purcellville.
I think these places are all deserving of support.
I’m catching up on the food scene in the area after spending time away and eating out a lot outside of the DC area. I was struck by the difference in service, in general. I have never been all that impressed with service with the exception of the rare few places here.
I’d constantly make excuses why average or just tolerable services was happening and then still tip well. My perspective has changed in that eating across all levels (top to bottom) and receiving good, friendly service across the board, I realized just how mediocre service tends to be in many places in the DC area.
If I were tipping according to service delivered, I’d be over-tipping. I don’t want to undertip waitstaff because it’s a hard job. However, I do think DC-area restaurants need to step it up. And, I’m not talking about phony service because you think someone will leave a big tip. I’m talking about well-delivered service that is genuinely good service where you make the customer feel glad they chose this place for an enjoyable meal, be it high or low.
Why is this so difficult to achieve? Thanks
Thanks for writing in …
I have a theory, but it’s just a theory.
I’ve noticed what you’ve noticed, too, but I think I’ve seen it more in the mid-level or casual places in other cities, not at the highest end. An openness, a friendliness, a sincerity.
I have long wondered if part of it is that service is looked-down-upon by so many in this city. I’m not just talking about the servers. I’m talking about the diners.
In other words, I wonder if it’s cultural.
In NY, it’s not, and I wonder if that’s because servers understand that waiting tables is a good means of support to pursue your art, and because diners there recognize that this is part of what gives the city its pulse — waiters and waitresses who are creative, and who need the work.
As I say, just a hunch …
I’m off to run errands. And then more errands.
Thank you all so much for the warm wishes; I didn’t have time to thank you all personally, but I am very touched by your words …
Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone!
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]