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.
After a recent visit to Little Serow (11/17), I came home with a different coat (one that almost fits).
I’m hoping that this is a way of finding its rightful owner and I would love to get my old, shabby coat back.
I woiuld love for you to get it back, too.
Word is out.
If you have been thinking that a coat of yours isn’t quite right, or if you work at Little Serow — I’d love to type that as: Li’l Serow — and see a coat lying around unclaimed, you know where to find me.
Good morning, everyone.
Another gray raiiny day … What’s on your mind? Where’ve you been eating? What are you craving? What are you toying with making for the holidays? …
About Elisir and their decision to charge for water: Can I bring my own selzer water then? If the sommelier wants a taste, I’d be glad to oblige. 🙂
And I double DARE you to try it one night …
Not only have you given me a great laugh, Arlington, but you also have given me an idea.
I recently went through my shelves of food books at the office and ended up with a huge pile of giveaways. I thought it’d be fun to pass them along to you, the readers, as part of these chats.
And your absolutely perfect riposte makes me think that this is precisely what the books ought to be used for. To reward great chat remarks.
So how about this?
I’ll pick a post of the week and the winner gets a book. Timely, well-needed witticisms are great, but you could also write a great, insightful mini-review, or sum up a trend in a way that needs summing up, or — whatever.
Have you eaten at New Heights since Ron Tanaka came over from Cork? Thanks very much.
Tanaka’s a pretty terrific cook. I had a very good meal, the highlight of which was a bowl of mussels steamed in a tomato-and-saffron broth, with tiny cubes of local coppa there to be discovered buried among the pile of black shells.
Best mussel prep I’ve had in months.
A bowl and some bread, and a glass of any of the excellent wines or a cocktail (it’s a pretty underrated list, as these things go) and you’ve got a complete (if light) meal if you ask me.
I’m new to Indian food. What’s a good place in Rockville that I can taste the real deal for dinner?
I’ve heard of Bombay Bistro, Minerva and Spice Xing, are any of these a good place to start?
This isn’t a cop-out: Each of those is a good place to begin your initiation.
Spice X-ing has the most refined cooking of the three, and also the most stylish setting.
Going to Bombay Bistro is a little like going out to the American equivalent of a pizza joint; you can come as you are, the atmosphere is very low-key, and the food comes quickly. If I were you, I’d focus on the chicken tikka makhani, a.k.a. butter chicken — so called for its lush, velvety sauce. It’s THE gateway dish for Indian neophytes, not too spicy and not too assertively exotic either.
Minerva does a great buffet, and that might be the way you’d want to go — giving you a chance to roam among the dozens of choices and see what you like.
I’ll be interested to hear what you decide, and where you end up. Good luck.
Exactly a year ago someone wrote in looking for a restaurant recommendation for National Harbor that was kid tolerant. Oddly enough, a year later I’m looking for that same information.
At the time you suggested (recommended doesn’t seem appropriate) Rosa Mexicano. Has anything changed in the last year?
Well, a new pizzeria has opened since then, called Fiorella, and I’d probably send you there first.
Great? No, not great. I had three pizzas — Fiorella bakes a Roman-style pizza, which features a very thin, cracker-like crust — and the results varied wildly from pie to pie to pie.
One was skimpy on ingredients, so that there were vast deserts of dry crust.
One was slightly underbaked.
And one was fantastic — so good, it was hard to believe it had come out of the same kitchen. Great crust, perfect balance of crust, toppings and sauce. I thought about that pizza for weeks after.
I’d love to have that again. I just don’t know if I’d need to go through three pizzas to get it.
I love reading your responses! Wish it was more than once a week! If you had to pick your “top restaurants” that are underpriced, the give you the most bang for your buck, in the district (or closeby), what would you say? Thanks!
It’s a good question.
And harder than it sounds, because many great bang-for-the-buck spots are OUTSIDE city limits.
I’m going to confine this mostly to inner city places, tossing in some good spots in Arlington, Bethesda and Silver Spring that I consider to be easy to access.
* Masala Art, Tenleytown.
* Zorba’s Cafe, Dupont Circle.
* Ethiopic, H St.
* The lounge at PS 7’s, Penn Quarter.
* Moroni & Brother’s, Petworth.
* Bar Pilar on 14th St.
* Minh’s, Clarendon.
* Himalayan Heritage, 18th St. below Adams Morgan.
* Cajun Experience on 18th St.
* Ray’s Hell Burger and Ray’s to the Third, Arlington.
* Sidebar, Silver Spring.
* ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, Dupont Circle
* Bayou Bakery, in Courthouse, Arlington. Comet Ping Pong, Cleveland Park.
* Yamas Mediterranean Grill, Bethesda.
Stopped into my local Roti last week. Their website and store are filled with splashy photos of healthy looking food. Their website claims they serve food that “loves you back”
My order: Falafel on laffa bread, with hummus, mixed greens, tomato & cucumber salad, red cabbage slaw, tahini, and shug. Sounds healthy and nutritious right?
Until you check Roti online nutrition calculator.
According to the calculator my sandwich weighed in at 1073 calories, 59 grams of fat, and 1978mg of sodium. Did I need to slather hummus, tahini, and shug (their shug is terrible btw) on the sandwich. Probably not. But I still found those numbers to be shockingly high. That’s roughly the same breakdown as 2 Big Macs!
Wonder what jacks those numbers up so high. That’s not the light-ish lunch you think you’re getting.
Speaking of which, I pop in often to a Pret a Manger that’s near the Washingtonian offices. Pret doesn’t force you to go online to get that kind of calorie breakdown — it posts them on tiny cards beneath the sandwiches, salads and yogurts. Good for them.
One day I splurged and got a Buffalo chicken wrap thingie. I dislike wraps, but I love the combo of vinegary hot sauce and blue cheese. This wasn’t a quick, five-bite sandwich; it was substantial. The card underneath said: 290 calories.
I was even more shocked after I finished it. No way, I thought, could something that gooey and rich be 290 calories. I said something to the manager, who insisted that the card was right.
Well, guess what?
Two weeks later I pop in and lo and behold, the card now reads 370 calories.
But I still think they’re off by another 140 calories.
In previous chats you mentioned a dish at Sichuan Pavilion called “flounder with green onions and pickled cabbage.” Is this how it’s written on the menu? I haven’t been able to find it. I once ordered something that sounded similar, but it wasn’t at all the way you described it (still tasty though).
I believe it may be listed as Sweet and Sour Whole Fish, but I don’t happen to have the menu in front of me just now.
Can you describe the dish you had?
We are moving from Cheverly all the way up to Laytonsville, right in the center between Olney, Gaithersburg and Germantown. We are already starting to frequent our PG County faves we will likely not visit again after the move while at the same time getting excited for a whole new place to dine. Can you tell us about some of the places to look forward to in that area?
Don’t worry at all. There’s a ton of good eating to keep you busy and happy.
In Germantown, there’s Sabai Sabai Simply Thai for good Thai, and Royal Bagel Bakery for good bagels and (homemade!) cream cheese and pastries.
In Olney, I enjoy the mezze at the lowkey, likeable Taste, and GrillmarX, a steakhouse, is promising. Kabab n Karahi, a good kabob house, is nearby in Cloverly.
Gaithersburg’s loaded: Burma Road for Burmese, Jaymar Colombian Breeze in the Kentlands for good Colombian (as well as stellar arepas), Batik (also in the Kentlands) for Asian dumplings and small plates, Thai House Restaurant on Snouffer School Rd., Minerva for Indian, Tortacos for tacos and tortas, Tai Shan for Chinese (there’s also northern-style dim sum on weekends).
Stay in touch, and let me know where your outings take you …
I actually had the Sichuan Pavilion Chinese style menu up on my browser.
Here is the fish section. Hope it helps.
1 奶皇琵琶虾 Creamy Custard Shrimp 14.50 2 鲜椒香辣虾 Spicy Shrimp with hot Peppers 14.50 3 香脆椒盐虾 Crispy Salty Shrimp 14.50 4 糖醋银带鱼 Sweet and Sour Belt Fish 13.75 5 泡椒墨鱼仔 Baby Cuttlefish with Pickled Cabbage & Peppers 14.25 6 酸菜泡椒鱼片 Flounder with Sour pickled Cabbage & Peppers 15.50 7 大厨水煮鱼片 Flounder and Vegetables in Fiery Soup 15.50 8 滑溜鱼片 Flounder with White Sauce 13.75 9 豆花鱼片 Flounder & Soft Tofu in Spicy Soup 15.50 10 荠菜溜鱼片 Flounder with Shepherd’s Purse 13.75 11 凉粉豆瓣鱼 Whole Fish & Bean Jelly in Hot Sichuan Sauce 16.95 12 家常泡菜鱼 Whole Fish with Pickled Vegetables 16.95 13 清蒸全鱼 Steamed Whole Fish with Ginger & Scallions 16.95 14 藤椒沸腾鱼片 Fresh Pepper Corns with Fish Fillet 15.50 15 尖椒豆豉鱼片 Hot Fresh Pepper with Flounder in Black Bean Sauce 15.50 16 锅巴海鲜 Crispy Rice Cake with Mixed Seafood 15.95
I’ll tell you, if you’ve never been to Sichuan Pavilion then that list alone ought to get you making some plans.
And if you HAVE been to Sichuan Pavilion, then, like me, you’re probably salivating right about now.
Thanks for the great visual aid, Arlingtongue. The dish we’re talking about is Flounder with Sour Pickled Cabbage and Peppers.
opps, my falafel also included feta 🙂
Well, see — you did it to yourself … ; )
I hate when they do that kind of thing to something that ought to be relatively low-calorie. It’s culinary bait-and-switch. See? Here’s a sandwich with no meat and loads of veggies. But we’ve got to fatten it up somehow and make you crave it, otherwise you’re going to feel unfulfilled and blame us for giving you something so insubstantial and never return. So hello, feta. Hello, cream sauce …
Regarding Bar Pilar, I’ve always thought it a cop-out to consider it “cheap eats” or even underpriced.
It’s common to spend as much on meals there as at Graffiato, Zaytinya or anywhere else serving small plates.
Some of the portions are large-ish, but even the fried chicken (around $14) isn’t all that much, IMO.
I’m not bashing the food, but am I missing something?
Believe me, I hear you.
Over the years, we, the food staff, have had many conversations about this, and I have always made a point similar to yours. I will simply say that it tends to be a more expensive meal there if you’re a guy. ; )
I do think that Pilar is very good bang-for-the-buck, and that’s what the chatter asked for. Not necessarily places that are cheap. And I will disagree with you that meals here can run as high as they do at Graffiato. I’ve never seen it.
Good Morning Todd,
I’ve missed being on the last few chats, so there is much to catch up on!
First a rave about The Ashby Inn. S.O. and I went a few weekends ago and dinner was amazing. We did the 7 course tasting with wine pairings; I’m still dreaming about the butternut squash soup with a swirl of something rich and maple crusted bacon bites!!
On a hilarious note, I nearly broke my tongue off by not noticing the little teapot “steaming” on the table was not tea, but liquid nitrogen (did I mention it was the end of the meal and we did the wine pairings?). Fortunately, our server stopped me before I poured. Be careful kids!
Second, I’m obsessed (thanks to your recommendation!) with the Oyster Jewel from Kushi. Do you know what kind of oyster they use?
Last, I received a gorgeous basket of gourmet cheeses and one of the items is a chocolate goat cheese. How would you serve it and what to serve it with in terms of wine or cocktail? Thanks so much and congratulations on your new family addition!
I’ve never seen a chocolate goat cheese, but it sounds tasty.
I’d really be tempted to bake it into a cheesecake.
But if I were going to leave it alone …
I imagine you could go for a sort of adult s’more and spread it atop a warmed-up pane of graham cracker.
I’m also going to guess it’d be really good with something like a chestnut honey drizzled on top of it.
Or spread atop some dark chocolate bark.
Or atop thin slices of toasted pound cake.
(I think nuts would work really well with this, so maybe toast up and salt some almonds and use them along with the chestnut honey.)
As for pairings … a sparkling Shiraz might work. So might a Petit Manseng.
Glad you liked the Oyster Jewel so much. Off the top of my head, no, I’m not familiar with the kind of oyster they use. Sorry.
Have you ever ventured to the food trucks right by the MVA in Gaithersburg?
There are usually 3 trucks, the first and third owned by the same guy, and they are excellent! Some credit him with being one of the first guys in MD to start up food trucks in that area and his tacos and burritos are so fresh, so tasty, and so CHEAP!
I walked away with a massive burrito that rivals any one at Chipotle (think fluffy, moist rice, beans and sauteed onions, and the protein of your choice along with cheese, and other goodies) moist pupusas (i had the shredded pork with cheese) with delicious complimentary pickled onions and jalapenos to complement the slaw and sauce, and tasty $2 tacos.
It brightened up an otherwise miserable visit to the MVA and left me stuffed, with lips still gentling burning from the delicious spicy sauce I was offered.
Yeah, good stuff …
He’s been there a LONG time. I know we first wrote about him in 2005 or 6. I’m not remembering his name off-hand, and it bugs me …
He was very, very savvy to put a taco truck in a place where a little happiness and uplift is sorely needed.
I have a class Thursday nights so I would grab a sandwich from Pret for a quick and easy meal during class. Until I checked their website and saw how much sodium is jacked into their sandiwches as well.
Now I grab a sandwich from Firehook, which offers no nutritional information (at least that i can find). I’m sure it’s just as bad, but at least I’m supporting a local business!
Better the devil you DON’T know than the devil you do, huh? : )
Re: Sichuan Pavilion The Flounder with Sour Pickled Cabbage and Peppers is the dish I ordered. It was in a broth with cellophane noodles, which is not what I was expecting. FWIW, I’ve had the same dish at Joe’s, which I thought was a little better than SP’s.
Not lately, it isn’t.
I had that dish a couple of months ago at Joe’s and it was pretty wretched. And I say that as someone who always looked forward to ordering it at Joe’s every time I went.
So go in ask for an extra empty glass and the go to men’s room and fill it from the tap there.
Not bad, Clifton. Not bad …
I’d actually love to see somebody do this, too.
My husband and I have plans with my sister and brother in law to be in Easton, MD on New Year’s Eve. We are stumped for dining plans! We’ve been to Out of the Fire and on the higher end, Inn at Perry Cabin. Any suggestions? Only requirement would be vegetarian options for my sister in law. Thank you kindly! Adore your chat!
The Bartlett Pear Inn?
It replaced the Inn at Easton, and is probably the best meal you can find in a 20-mile vicinity.
During my time in the District, I’ve noticed with greater frequency than I would have thought – well, cooks/chefs change venues quite often. I know there can be many reasons or causes for a departure but what I’d like to know is how it affects quality in these establishments?
Do the skills of a chef translate no matter if cooking high to low or low to high? What if the cuisine of focus is different? For example, if one is trained in French cooking, will s/he be able to excel in the Italian kitchen or the tapas kitchen or Indian kitchen or local American kitchen?
I think you get the idea…I am not sure that a chef’s kitchen skills are necessarily transferrable? Maybe to a degree but then don’t we end up with mediocrity across the board? Thanks for considering my question.
I don’t think chefs come and go with greater frequency here than in other big cities.
It’s demanding work, and the burnout is extremely high. And there are always new places opening up, so there are always fresh opportunities to bolt.
As for how that departure affects a restaurant — well, it all depends. Some places suffer. Some stay the same. Some actually get better. No different from any other profession that way. (Anybody remember the Daily Show with Craig Kilborn?)
I agree with you that there are bad fits. I’ve seen quite a few round holes bashing into square pegs.
Chefs with a broad culinary education, however, and a period of concentrated time spent immersed in the world of a new and/or adopted cuisine can surprise you. I’ve seen it happen many times.
And there really aren’t that many places anymore that are strictly Italian or strictly French. The dominant mode is fusion — I’m employing the term broadly, here — and there’s a lot of crisscrossing going on. It’s not uncommon to see an American restaurant that finds inspiration from every continent. …
My time’s up, everyone. I’m starving for some lunch.
If the writer of the fabulous Elisir crack can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’ll get your book off to you …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]