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.
So we went to Little Serow this past weekend and what a gem of a restaurant! The bold flavors took us right back to our trip to Thailand and the warmth and high energy of the place really made up for the bare bones decor, furniture and concrete floors. The service, as you noted, was unbelievably genuine and so fluid. Chef Monis was in the kitchen all night which was surprising! Do you find he’s spending more time downstairs than at Komi now, until things are more up and running for a few more weeks?
I don’t see any way he could not do it this way.
He is, however, swing back and forth between the two at night, so I wouldn’t be too concerned if you were planning on dining at Komi any time soon.
I’ve heard a bit of talk already about the decor, or rather the lack thereof — it’s certainly not the best-dressed Thai restaurant in the city or even the area — but I think the important thing to say here is that it fits the vision of the place. That’s all you can ask.
I should also note that I think the place has already taken a small leap of improvement. Certain dishes — I’m thinking of the “charred, hammered beef,” which eats like a sort of Thai barbecue — are markedly better than what they were at the beginning.
Good morning, everyone. A cool, gray November morning, the kind that’s best with a Bill Evans album on in the background. Or, if you’re a devotee like me — in the foreground …
I just wanted to take a moment to say thank all of you out there for the wonderful cards and emails you sent this past week. I’m really, really touched that you’d take the time to drop a note like that and ask after me and my wife and the new baby. With deepest gratitude — thank you.
The baby, by the way, is doing very well and settling in nicely to his new life and new home. He’s really a gentle-souled little boy. So far. …
Where can one get a good lamb tagine? There used to be a place called Pyramids off Florida Avenue that made the dish well, any idea where they have relocated?
A great dish to dive into on a day like today.
Makes me miss a place like Pyramids all the more — terrific spot. I wish Khadijah, the owner and cook, would return somewhere and fire up the stove. Her chicken bistilla was excellent, too.
There’s not much out there, unfortunately.
I’d look into a place called Moroccan Bites, which is where Marrakesh used to be, on Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring. The latter is relocating soon to Bethesda.
Where can we have a nice, reasonably priced pre -threatre dinner close to Arena Stage so we can park and walk to both?
Well, it’s not a short walk — it’s just over a mile — but for what you’re looking for it’s really the best I can recommend.
Arena underwent a massive renovation, but the area around it did not — it remains one of the enduring dining wastelands of the city.
I’m going to send you to a place called Justin’s Cafe, for pizzas, salads, soups, and sandwiches. Dining, it’s not, but there’s not a lot in the way of rewarding dining — reasonably priced rewarding dining — in the vicinity.
Station 4 is a bit closer, but it’s also significantly more expensive and — if my one meal there is any indication — pretty uneven. I did like a twist on a PB&J made with foie gras and pain perdu and huckleberry jam. One of the more complicated dishes on the menu, and the kitchen nailed it.
Hurrah for Fishnet! How are the lobster rolls?
They’re good. I like the pronounced fennel flavor in there.
I’d go for the wild king salmon first, though — grilled, with spicy chipotle aioli. Or the hake, fried, with Turkish tartar sauce. Or the fish sticks (!) and a bowl of fish soup.
I really do hope people find their way to this place.
It’s not visible from a major thoroughfare, and it’s also pretty far outside what most foodies in this area consider the dining nexus.
Why do I think it’s worth a drive? Because it could easily cut corners, and doesn’t. It’s getting high-quality fresh fish, and it’s also handling that fish with care. Good rolls. Interesting sauces. And that soup — you could expect to find that on the menu of a restaurant that’s a much bigger to-do.
Good Morning Todd,
I recently visited Fiola because of your recent comments from your, “Where I’m Eating Now” list. We were craving great Italian! My table guests tried everything you mentioned and wept with excitement at how wonderful the meal was.
The seafood on the menu and the Italian Susci, however, intrigued me. My take on the evening, was just as astounding. Nantucket bay scallops with smoked steelhead caviar and a little basil to start and then the spiny lobster is poached in ginger juice, parsley, olives, capers, and roasted tomatoes!
How many times do you go into a restaurant expecting to eat or review what that chef is known for and step outside the box to see what else they have up their sleeve?
Me? I do it all the time. ; )
Thanks so much for your mini-review. How great is that for a restaurant to hear? The diners WEPT WITH EXCITEMENT.
I understand the sentiment. I’m still thinking, in particular, about chef Fabio Trabocchi’s papardelle with a ragu of wild Scottish hare. You don’t often say of a rusticky dish that it was sublime, but that’s the only way to describe this — a sublime rusticity.
That and a glass of Barolo and I’d gladly eat carrot and celery sticks all the next day …
I’m thinking of getting my boyfriend a cooking class for Hanukkah. Any recommendations?
Great gift idea.
Here are three to look into:
* CulinAerie on 14th St. near Thomas Circle
* Sur La Table in Arlington
* and the venerable L’Academie de Cuisine, which offers recreational cooking classes at its campus in Bethesda. (You can buy individual classes or skill-developing series. There are also gift certificates, which would allow your boyfriend to look over the schedule and decide for himself.)
You could also call up some of your boyfriend’s favorite restaurants and ask whether they offer classes or even private lessons. Many of the Passion Food Hospitality restaurants, for instance — including Acadiana, Ceiba, Burger, Tap & Shake and DC Coast — offer classes. So does Lebanese Taverna.
I’d love to hear what route you decide to go.
Speaking of jazz…throw some Stan Getz on, too! That will get you going on a cool day. Speaking of which, can you recommend a good Brazilian meal around town?
Oh man, I wish.
There’s the Grill from Ipanema, there’s Fogo de Chao, there’s the odd dish at the Rumba Room, the odd dish at Ceiba, and — that’s pretty much it. Nothing, really, that’s going to scratch that itch.
I’d love to have a great Brazilian restaurant in this city. And with all the trimmings.
If you could go to any country (that you have not otherwise been to) for a no holds barred eating tour, where would you go?
At the moment, i’d say Peru.
I think it’s a fascinating cuisine, and a lot of the articles I’ve read in the past few years about the kinds of eating to be done there — in the cities, in the villages — has made my mouth water.
Todd, not sure if the reader was interested in Jewish foods specifically, but it could be a really fun hanukah present and I know Temple Micah on Wisconsin offers them.
Hey, good to know! Thanks for chiming in with this.
I wonder if there are other temples or shuls that are doing this –?
It’s a great idea.
I play on an amateur sports team in DC. Once a month, my teammates and I get together for dinner before games. We started out doing potlucks, but we always made too much food. Then we started having pasta nights, which worked really well because we have a few vegetarians and a few lactose intolerant players on our team. But we want to try something different this month.
Do you have any suggestions for meals we could make that can be adapted easily for a group of about 14-16 that includes a few who can’t eat cheese and cream and a few more who don’t eat meat? No more spaghetti parties!
How about a Taco Night?
You can do it with beans instead of meat — bowls of various kinds of refries: regular frijoles and black bean frijoles and pinto bean frijoles. Lots of variety there.
And then you’d have a slew of toppings — bias-sliced scallions and/or charred scallions, pickled jalapenos, diced onion and/or pickled onion slices, sliced radish, cheeses for those who can handle the dairy (crumbly queso fresco, shredded Colby, etc.), chopped tomatoes, cukes, lots of guacamole, etc.
What do you think?
I used to get this authentic Spanish meal from a quaint little strip mall next to a gas station on Long Island, NY. They had a fork tender 1/2 roasted chicken, yellow rice & beans, perfectly fried plantains- filled to the brim and only for $8- it used to be two meals for me!
I miss that comfort Spanish meal- authentic and flavorful. What’s a girl to do when she’s craving something from New York in the DMV?
I’m looking for something outside of the Peruvian Chicken territory- deep developed and authentic flavors is a must. Comfort food, stews, rice… Any ideas near Rockville, MD?
Are you kidding? You’re right in the heart of what you’re looking for.
There’s La Limeña for — well, a boatload of things. Anticuchos, tiradito, aji de gallina, ceviche, alfajores — all wonderful. There’s La Brasa (which is a mix of Salvadoran and Peruvian) for the excellent chicken soup, as well as the plantains and pupusas. There’s Carbon for its fantastic asado de tira and chorizo sandwiches.
For something more upscale, there’s La Canela, also in Rockville. I think it’s best to load up on dishes from the first two pages of the menu, then maybe share one of the fish preparations, like a whole trout.
I was surprised to find that Meatballs isn’t wheelchair accessible. I tried to go this weekend, opened the front door, and was shocked to see a 3-inch step down. The alternate door a few feet away had the same little step.
A manager-like came out and offered to bring me something outside, which I declined. He said something about a “ramp” not working out.
I don’t expect the world to be accessible but I’m surprised that accessibility was so disregarded at a space that was totally renovated and has the name of a celebrity chef all over it.
I’m not an architect but it seems like this is an easy fix, which is what is so irritating.
The Meatballs situation actually is very unusual. I’m sure they exist, but I can’t think of another restaurant in the area that I can’t visit. I’ve been to Jaleo, Proof, Rasika, Hill County, Poste, Oya, Luke’s, Zaytina, Ella’s, Clydes, Carmines, Rosa Mexicana, the Chop House (some for work obligations and probably more than I can’t remember) and never had any problem in a wheelchair.
Many restaurant owners value me as a customer, and the friends I bring, because I eat out so often, but Meatballs just seems really short-sighted, considering the city is teaming with wheelchair users and people who work in the arena of civil rights and are sympathetic to access issues.
Thanks for writing in.
Let’s hope your posting here will give Meatballs the incentive it needs to address the problem.
I was recently at a Belgium Beer Restaurant for a birthday dinner. Beer was poured from bottles of beer into glasses by people other then our server, one being an individual who identified himself as being a manager. The majority of the glasses ended up being filled with foam. I’m not kidding, one glass was probably 3/4 foam.
After each pour they were apologized to and that was it. I don’t expect any sort of refund or anything like that, I just wish that some of these places in the city would do a better job pouring their beer, and for the prices some of these places charge for a beer I don’t think this is too much to ask.
I’m with you.
And it’s really such a simple thing to tilt the glass and go slowly.
People from other places in the country are always flabbergasted when they get a load of the price for drinking a beer at a restaurant around here.
Or a cocktail. Or a glass of wine.
I had a Negroni at a good restaurant in St. Louis a while ago, and it was six bucks. It was a good Negroni, too.
What can you find for six bucks in DC?
Heck, even water’s gonna cost you now.
The latest astonishment is supplied by the new Elisir, which will be charging — I am not making this up, as Dave Barry would say — 29 cents for water.
The official explanation: “Elisir is only serving the filtered kind.”
Filtered. Like we all drink at home from our Brita.
No real labor involved.
I’m thinking, just now, of a glorious little piece of improvised comedy from a certain apoplectic baller, currently retired …
“Not a drink, not a drink, not a drink — water. We talkin’ ’bout water. I mean, water, man. Not a drink. Not a drink. Water.“
(Love you, A.I.)
Thank you all for the questions and comments and rants and to-the-attention of’s. I appreciate it.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]