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.
Hi Todd, It’s been a long time. I haven’t been very motivated by the current dining scene but I just read the best bite blog about the Jewish delicatessen that is opening on CT Ave., and I am super psyched!
I hope the deli considers asking the community for recipe requests, even if they only make 1 special recipe per month. I think it would be a great way to get the Jewish community to support the deli. Who doesn’t have a great brisket recipe, or their Aunt Marla’s recipe for Matzah brei, or make-at-home knish recipe.
I also hope they have nice big chairs where I can read a magazine and eat a slice of chocolate babka and enjoy a hot cup of coffee.
See – I am getting overworked already at the prospect of good jewish homecooking for lunch and a nice break from K St. bustle.
I have no doubt that they’re going to be flooded with recipes from all sorts of people once they open.
Actually, from talking to the team at DGS Delicatessen last week, they’re already being flooded. I guess all you have to do is announce you’re going to open a Jewish deli (expected date: summer 2012), and people will send you all sorts of recipes from the yellowed family trove.
I wouldn’t count on their doing something like this, and imagine they’re test-tasting dozens of versions of all these dishes in the quest to find one they like. Which I have to think they’ll then stick with for a while.
I didn’t hear anything about babka — didn’t hear anything about any desserts — but babka does seems like a natural. I haven’t had a slice in a while, and just your typing the word has made me crave some. …
Good morning, everyone, and happy erev Chanukah to all the MOT out there …
I just wanted to alert you to a blog post I just did on my Top 10 food memories from the past year. I hope you enjoy the read.
I’m not sure if you remember but I wrote in a few weeks ago looking for a suggestion on where to take my parents for their 40th anniversary dinner.
You suggested Vermillion and I just wanted to say thanks for the great suggestion and thank you to Vermillion! We went on Saturday and had a really great experience.
Prior to the meal I spoke with the GM several times over email and phone and he was very helpful and even had the idea to come up with a preset personalized menu with the chef’s “top picks” which worked out great! It was nice to have the extra personal touch on the menus and the selections were fantastic. They also treated us each to a small taste of their lobster bisque (which was rich and delicious) and a dessert, both on the house.
They even wrote my parents a card to thank them for celebrating there.
Our waiter was fantastic, paid us the perfect amount of attention, the ambiance was great, romantic and even though it is a small space and it was crowded, somehow it was not loud.
Then, of course the food was amazing. Everyone loved what they ordered, some of my personal favorites were the lobster bisque, the lobster tortellnoi, the waldorf salad, the butternut squash cappellacci, the rockfish, and for dessert, the figgy pudding and the sweet potato fitters.
It was a really special night, thanks again!
You had a lot riding on this night, and it’s really gratifying to hear that it all turned out so perfectly. Thanks for writing in …
It’s funny, I was just thinking of Vermilion last week. I was talking with a friend about restaurants in Vegas, and how you might have a good or great meal, but you have that meal in what is, essentially, a vacuum. No matter how elegant or luxurious the restaurant, no matter how exquisite the cooking might be, it’s like eating in a food court. All the big-time restaurants are in casinos, and all the casinos are monstrous shopping malls.
By contrast, when you walk into Vermilion, you have strolled the cobblestone streets of Old Town, and greeting you out front is a charming gas lamp.
Why aren’t there any 3 or 4 star Thai restuarants?
Not sure what you’re asking.
Are you saying you haven’t seen any Thai restaurants in this area worthy of being called three- and four-star places?
Or are you wondering why haven’t we awarded that many stars to the area’s better Thai restaurants?
If it’s the latter, I say — stay tuned. The January and February issues may hold some surprises.
I think there’s a good bit of good Thai food out there. The places I’m most impressed with right now are Ruan Thai and Nava Thai in Wheaton, Bangkok 54 in Arlington, Kao Thai in Silver Spring, Sabai Sabai Simply Thai in Germantown and the new Little Serow, Johnny Monis’s place, in DC.
One more thing, I wanted to report on the new lunch place Bon Mi over on I St. It is awesome and I highly recommend to anyone who wants a lunch of substance for $7. I like the brisket sandwich the best. Downtowners, please support this place so we don’t have to go back to the standard sandwich or lunch buffet places.
Even given the fact that I think “awesome” should only ever be used to describe something like the parting of the red sea, I think you’re going, oh, just a wee bit overboard in praise of this place.
Is there any standard for the size of pour for a “glass” of wine? How small is too small?
I recently was charged $14 for a “glass” of The Table Napa Cabernet that retails for $17/bottle. I approximated the pour at home at no more than 3.5 oz.
At most upmarket restaurants, a standard pour is 5 or 6 ounces.
The thing is, when the wine’s been tipped into the stemware that some restaurants use, that pour — even if it’s standard — can look mighty small. Without seeing the size of the glass, I can’t say whether you were taken or not.
Now, as for mark-ups … yeah, you were definitely taken there. That’s a huge mark-up. But it’s not as though this restaurant is doing something no other restaurants are. High mark-ups are the norm in upmarket restaurants. Standard, here, is three and sometimes four times the cost of retail.
Anecdotal evidence tells me that most diners are looking to spend around $40-$50 for a nice bottle of wine at a nice restaurant, unless it’s a very special occasion (and sometimes, not even then). What this means, in many cases, is that the bottle of wine you are drinking at that very nice meal in that very nice restaurant costs about $14-$17 retail. Nothing wrong with that; there are some terrific wines for $15. Just so you know what you are in for, is my point.
Your Top 10 was a great piece of writing Todd.
Some friends moved into their first house over the weekend and we offered to stop by with dinner and toast their new place. Coming from an afternoon engagement, we drove past the Parkway Deli and decided to stop in for take-out.
Whole roast chicken, large mashed potatoes, large mac and cheese, medium spinach, two greek salads, and a 6 pack of beer (roughly $40)…Food was homey and comfy and perfect for a chilly Saturday night dining amongst half-empty moving boxes.
And thanks for the nice words, too.
I’m going to bet that wasn’t the best food you ate all year, but that it made for one of your best food moments. Yes?
On that score — I’d love to hear from all of you. Do you have a favorite food moment of the year to share?
Is is possible to get good mexican food in this city?
In the city limits?
Are you willing to drive? Because Little Mexico, in Bladensburg, is only 20-25 minutes from downtown. I like La Sirenita for chili rellenos, chilaquiles, posole, carnitas and salty beef tacos, and Taqueria La Placita for its pork leg taco and taco al pastor.
And if you’re willing to take a short trip, there’s R&R, in Elkridge, which I wrote about in my blog post on my favorite food memories of 2011. Wonderful regional Mexican cooking — posole, huarache, sopes, cochinita (baby pig) tacos, chilaquiles, etc. — in one of the least likely places imaginable: a gas station.
No, it really is awesome. The brisket is super tender and juicy. The lemongrass chicken was all breast pieces and nice and spicy. The bread is crunchy on the outside and doughy on the inside. The portions aren’t stingy. You can get the sandiwch sufficiently spicy between the sauce and jalapenos. It is an awesome lunch place, and that’s why you can never get a seat and there is a constant line.
Is it me? I have yet to see anything there approach “awesome.”
Or even what I would call “good.”
Been eating (slurping) Pho for a couple of years now. Astounded at how Vietnamese can use the spoon with one hand while using chopsticks at the same time with the other.
The question is what does one look for in deciding whether the Pho is better in restaurant A or B. I know, of course, taste but what else?
That dual hand action is one of the pleasures, I think, of hitting a pho parlor. I love watching people who grew up eating pho, work the bowl.
I eat my pho this way, too, though I’m not nearly as dextrous as some. This summer my wife called while I was in the middle of a bowl of pho, and without setting down either my chopsticks or my spoon, I retrieved my iPhone from my back pocket and pressed “answer.” It was too many things going at one time, and the phone slipped from my grasp and went plop! into the steaming soup.
Just like that — down a phone that already costs too much to begin with.
As for what to look for in a bowl … personally, I’m looking for a broth that isn’t all one-dimension. Some broths are very heavy on the star anise. Some are lightly sweet. I want depth and I want balance.
And I want a broth where you see some tiny beads floating and swirling on the surface, because that indicates a broth that has retained a decent bit of fat (fat = flavor). If you don’t see those beads, or you don’t get a little residue on your tongue, then that usually means that it was a hastily-made pho or, more likely, a pho that has been watered-down too much as the day has worn on.
Where’s the best, fresh pasta in DC?
To buy to prepare at home?
Or to enjoy at a restaurant?
If it’s the latter, I’m going to send you to Fiola. Ask for the spaghetti with sheep’s milk cheese and cracked black pepper — so simple, so sublime — or the knockout papardelle with a ragu of wild Scottish hare.
I’m looking for places to take my parents and grandmother on an upcoming visit. We’re already planning to hit Ardeo + Bardeo and possibly Watershed (though I tried it over the weekend and didn’t love it). I’m looking for some well-crafted American food, moderately priced, in an atmosphere that’s pleasant and laid-back. (Nothing overly trendy or loud.)
Oh, and no Southern food, since we’re all from the South. I’m currently considering the Atlas Room and District Commons. Any other recommendations?
I’d keep Ardeo + Bardeo and the Atlas Room.
Others you should consider: Palena Cafe and Ripple (both in Cleveland Park, like Ardeo + Bardeo) and Proof (in Penn Quarter).
I hope you have a great visit. Let me know which of these you end up hitting; I’ll be curious to hear your takes …
I just found out that I will be moving from DC this summer, after 6 happy years living and eating here.
The first thing I did was start my DC Bucket List for restaurants and food that I want to experience before I leave.
So far I have the lounge menu at Corduroy, Minibar (if I can get in!), Ethiopic, and somewhere where I can crack crabs with a mallet sitting at a picnic table. What would be on your list?
Cantler’s Riverside Inn, in Annapolis, should be your destination for crab crackin’.
I’d put a weekend tour of the Eden Center, in Falls Church, on there. Song Que, Hai Duong, Nhu Lan, Pho Xe Lua, Viet Taste, Huong Viet, Viet Bistro …
An afternoon in Koreatown, in Annandale. Lunch at Honey Pig or Gom Ba Woo — or both, preferably — followed by a trip to Shilla Bakery for coffee and pastries and bingsoo.
You have to have a half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl, if you haven’t already.
Market lunch at Eastern Market.
Sushi at Sushi Taro or Kushi.
The Lickety-Split lunch at Restaurant Eve.
A single-malt scotch tasting at Jack Rose.
Tiradito and anticuchos at La Limeña.
The Inn at Little Washington.
The lounge menu at Citronelle.
The lounge menu at CityZen.
Marcel’s for its boudin blanc and superlative service.
Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore.
R&R Taqueria in Elkridge.
Those were some super awesome messages from Del Ray. Either that person has a strong tendency toward hyperbole or some affiliation with the restaurant in question.
Favorite food memory of the year:
One Saturday night in February, my wife and I, both grad students, had worked through most of the day and were ready for a break. We drove out to Fairfax and Malik’s Kabob — we had heard good things.
We got there, the place is about half-full, showing a basketball game. Everyone is smoking shisha and no one–not a soul–is eating. Sure enough, the kitchen’s still open, and though it took quite a while, the kabobs were spectacular.
As always happens, you stuff yourself on the rice and chickpeas and struggle to finish, but we did. Good spice on the chickpeas, but still sweet. Good bread, and the wait gave us time to catch up over tea. Swung in somewhere for an ice cream cone we didn’t need for the trip back.
Really a perfect night, one I’ve missed a lot since we got rid of our car.
And I can definitely identify. Last time I was in, there was only one other person eating besides me. Everyone but everyone was hitting the shisha pipe.
You’d think that meant the food was nothing to spend time on, but in fact the cooking’s fantastic. I love those kabobs.
I’m going to bet that the two of you remember this meal more than more expensive, more quote-unquote romantic meals you eat later, when you’re both out of grad school and you have a little bit of money in your pocket.
Eating fresh grilled squid on the shore of the Mediterranean.
When? And where? And who cooked the squid?
Wondering if you tried Pork Barrel BBQ in Del Ray and what you thought. I liked my pulled pork sandwich and the sides were great. So stoked to have this in the neighborhood!
Maybe if it was my neighborhood, I would go a couple of times a year.
I went this weekend and the only things a friend and I finished were the excellent sides of cucumber salad and Texas caviar and the two bottles of old timey sodas — not a good sign for a barbecue place. All the sauces I sampled tasted strongly of liquid smoke, and the meats (I had a pulled pork sandwich and a half chicken) were dry. I also found a strip of Saran Wrap or something like it in the sandwich.
At 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon, the kitchen was out of ribs. The guy taking orders said they might be ready after 1, but he wasn’t very convincing, and since the place couldn’t keep up with the line the entire time I was there, I decided not to stick around and wait and wait …
It’s $25 for a rack of ribs, and you don’t get table service. I mean, come on …
And the atmosphere has all the character and charm of a cafeteria at an assisted living center. Shouldn’t a ribs joint be a fun, rollicking place with the blues turned up loud and lots of neat things to look at like bottled sauces and t-shirts and album covers?
Maybe this will help talk about the size of wine pours out and about in Washington.
True, stemware can be somewhat aiding in deceit when eyeballing a pour; those gigantic bulb-like glasses make a standard pour look like a tear drop. Outside of this, though, some places (e.g., hotel bar or places where one is a regular – you might get a larger than normal pour, which makes it seem that that is what is normal.
I had this happen to me recently. I received a quite large pour at a place that I go to but not necessarily a regular. I then went to a new place and drank wine and by comparison, the pour seemed on the shy side.
However, keeping in mind what a standard pour should look like, I reminded myself the pour I received at the other place was a very large pour – and there was nothing standard about it. Sometimes that may skew our perceptions as well.
But sometimes the glass really is (much more than) half empty.
Speaking of which … I’ve gotta run. Thanks so much, everyone, for all the questions and comments …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]