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 AM 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, The Daily Beast 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 present-day evangelist, a foul-mouthed transgendered multi-millionaire vintner on an obsessive quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.
Can’t wait a week to talk to Todd? Follow him on Twitter for dining reports, tips, and breaking news from the culinary world.
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
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.
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.
I love the tossed-off sophistication of Mark Kuller’s wine-bar-plus, the sense you get that everything just seems to have fallen into place and nobody’s straining too hard for effect. The cooking, under the direction of Haidar Karoum, reinforces the feeling with dishes that combine the complexity and intricacy of fine dining with the approachability of a neighborhood bistro: superlative foie gras (seared and served atop a cherry-studded short cake), crisp-skinned branzino in a saffron broth, a knockout plate of spaghetti and meatballs (foie gras is the crucial ingredient, an ingenious way of lightening the texture of the meat without resorting to bready filler). There’s a wealth of good, interesting wines to pair with these plates—wines you’re simply not going to find anywhere else in the city. The restaurant, to its great credit, makes them available in two-ounce pours that encourages you to try things you wouldn’t ordinarily.
Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Falls Church
#1 Combination and #2 Roast Pork. $3.75 apiece. Vivid reminders of what the boring and/or dumbed-down others all miss—the peppery bite, the pronounced sharpness of the pickling, the balance between meats and condiments, the lightness of the loaf.
Mama Chuy, DC
Working from their perch in a rowhouse across the street from Howard University, a brother-sister team from Guadalajara (by way of Chicago) have delivered one of the great surprises of the season — a taqueria that aims not merely to be authentic, but to win your hungry heart with its commitment to exactitude and detail. Start with an order of the superlative housemade chips—as salty, thin and crunchy as you could hope for — and guacamole, then move on to the tacos and sopes, each presented in easy-to-handle cocktail-size portions. The carnitas sopes (tiny discs of fried masa slathered with refried beans and topped with luscious cubes of marinated, grilled pork) might just be the best three bites of Mexican food you’re going to find within city limits.
Rice Paper, Falls Church
This new Eden Center mom ‘n’ pop, the first restaurant venture for the host family after two-plus decades in the jewelry business, breaks from the drab utilitarianism of its Eden Center peers with a pressed tin ceiling, dangling globe lights, sleek leather chairs, and the requisite industrial brick wall. It’s the cooking, though, that commands inspection: spicy lemongrass ribs, garlic-marinated roast chicken with coconut rice, and the most stylish presentation of grilled stuffed grape leaves I’ve ever seen—and easily one of the most delicious. The coffee with condensed milk is a must-order, among the strongest and darkest you’re going to find.
In its five fitful years, Manuel Iguina’s restaurant has endured more identity transplants than a snitch in the witness protection program and more mood swings than a teenie pop star. It’s currently up—way up—thanks to new chef Giovanna Huyke. Like Iguina, Huyke is a native of Puerto Rico, and much of the inspiration for her menu looks to that small but vibrant island. The chef appears to value execution and lightness even more than boldness and spice, resulting in a slew of big-tasting dishes that don’t taste big. Zero in on her roast quail stuffed with foie gras and white polenta, a cubed tuna tartare with orange cream, and, from the bar menu, her irresistible bolsitas — tiny fried purses filled with juicy pork, served with a guava dipping sauce.
Bon Fresco, Columbia
Best bread in the area. And maybe the best sandwiches, too—I still can’t stop thinking about the unlikely masterpiece of brie, lightly caramelized onions and sundried tomato pesto on a light and crusty baguette. And the London Broil on ciabatta is fantastic, too. Gerald Koh, the owner and bread-baker, is a former GM at Breadline and as passionate about his craft as any chef in the area.
THIS WEEK’S CONTEST: Win Food & Wine’s Best of the Best Cookbook Recipes!
Today’s challenge is simple: As a foodie, what is your secret shame? We all have ’em. The thing you eat gladly and simultaneously (if privately) flay yourself over. The cause or concern you know you ought to care about, but nonetheless spurn. The joint where you’re a regular yet all the same you don’t want anyone to know you dare go near.
1. Name it. 2. Explain it. 3. Justify it.
Winner gets the cookbook, which includes recipes from Andrew Carmellini, Giada de Laurentiis, and Joel Robuchon, among others. …
Just finished reading your dining with kids article–we have a two and half year old–and it was soooo similar to our experience.
I also swore the kid would not keep us from eating good food and that he would never eat a chicken nugget (and he hasn’t). Like your barbeque fiasco we had a similar jump the shark moment when, unbeknownst to us, he had become ill (we were still learning to be parents) and took him out to dinner at a very nice restaurant in Silver Spring. He began to vomit like a volcano at the table. We didn’t go out again for a long time after that.
We have also observed that Latin and Asian restaurants in particular give us good treatment. In our neck of the woods the servers at New Kam Fong are very, very sweet. They make such a big deal about him, bringing him plastic utensils to play with and otherwise engage him.
Another place that also gives kids great service is Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda. While I know it probably won’t make anyone’s list of best DC restaurants a lot of the servers are Hispanic men who should be an exception to your belief that only waitresses know how to deal with kids. The last time we were there our server, who was clearly a dad, brought us carrots and ranch dip as soon as we were seated and did a million other nice things to keep our kid entertained.
The brunch there is enjoyable and the patio is a good spot to park a stroller. Servers should wise up that kid-friendly service will get them big tips–we are more generous than ever now that we need more help.
Thanks for writing in …
I know there are others out there who are going to recoil at your volcano moment, right in advance of lunch, but hey — a good laugh trumps just about anything.
It’s funny that your wrote in with that, because just this weekend I got an email from a reader who didn’t identify at all, and didn’t find the incident funny. Not only that, but he implied that I was a bad and stupid parent. For feeding my kid some barbecue.
Ah, feedback …
By the way, just to clarify: Nowhere in the piece do I say that only waitresses know how to deal with kids. I don’t believe that, for one thing, and you point out something, here, that I’ve also noticed at various spots around the area. I do think that waitresses tend to be more responsive and aware than waiters when it comes to kids. I’ve had some entirely clueless and unwelcoming waitresses, it’s true, but on the whole, if I were taking a young kid out to eat, and it was not a so-called ethnic restaurant, I would hope that my table was waited on by a waitress.
My 30 year old nephew is coming for dinner. When I asked what he wanted for dessert, he immediately answered the butterscotch cake they used to offer at Scotland Yard in Alexandria. I know it closed a number of years ago. Any ideas on how to find it?
Jeez, no idea.
Now that’d be a heckuva column, wouldn’t it? Recipe Sleuth Extreme.
And the inaugural effort is to track down a dish at a place named Scotland Yard, of all things.
Does anybody know of anything out there that might be remotely like this cake?
Chic-fil-A is my secret shame.
I love those little chicken sandwhiches as much as I detest that company’s politics. For me it is like that Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Elaine ask Poppie his opinion on abortion as a litmus test for whether Elaine will eat his food, only this is in real life. I always feel a tinge of guilt when I eat one of those sandwiches. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
And a double Seinfeld reference, to boot!
As Rome would say, “Rack him.” (I have no idea what this means, but I find it funny. In an I’m-laughing-at-you-and-not-with-you way. Which is my attitude toward Rome himself.)
A report from the burbs:
11 of us got together over the long weekend to tackle the Loa Menu at Bangkok Golden. 14 dishes later and we were stuffed.
Lots of fresh flavors, good variety of food. Perhaps our one quibble was, despite our request, they didn’t bring much heat to the food.
Until we request one dish to be made “Lao” hot…and it was hot!
Highlights included: Shrimp cake Lao spicy sausage Crispy rice salad Beef tripe soup Larb with duck Grilled pork neck Moak Normai/Bamboo: Bamboo curry with pork Moak Tilapia
I love that menu.
I’d easily drive an hour to eat those dishes.
There’s a wonderful tilapia smeared with chili paste and coconut milk, and steamed in a banana leaf, that I could eat every day.
That “crispy rice salad” you mentioned is one of those dishes whose name doesn’t come close to hinting at what you”re about to dig into — a lively hash of pounded rice, ham, onion, cilantro, and fish sauce. Just fantastic.
I also love a dish of rice paste that’s flavored with tomatoes, garlic, and ginger. You spoon and smear it onto leaves of lettuce, garnishing it wth toasted peanuts and dried scallions.
One other must-order: the koi pah, a sort of Laotian ceviche; make sure to order it “medium rare,” so that the fish has some give and texture.
We’ve all been there. It’s late night, you’ve had a few, and there’s hardly a Jumbo Slice in sight. No, that wouldn’t do anyway. This craving can only be satisfied one way, by indulging in what some marketing guru dubbed “Fourthmeal.” Taco Bell.
Seemingly hundreds of variations of the same thing: flour tortillas filled with a substance containing a disputed percentage of beef, cheese, some kind of sauce, and, if you’re splurging, beans and sour cream. Every so often they, like Subway, come out with a new product that’s really just a reshuffling of ingredients they already have on hand. But, the game’s about to change. With their cohorts at Frito Lay, they’re coming out with something USA Today called their biggest product launch yet: a Doritos Taco. A taco in a Doritos shell.
And why do I want to try it? The idea both repulses and fascinates me at the same time. I like the two products independently? But together? We shall see. I will try it, though in all reality I shouldn’t. Man is not meant to eat such a thing.
I’m the kinda guy like I imagine many of your readers are: always interested in the next place that opens, and where to find the best food in the area. I scour the local message boards, blogs, and any local food media. I love authentic taquerias (like the place in a gas station I found this summer in Homestead, FL with some incredible lengua and al pastor tacos) or places that do the high end stuff really well (Oyamel, Rick Bayless’ joints).
But if I’m getting home from work late on a weeknight and I know I don’t have any food on hand at home, my choices are upstairs with Chipotle (“Mexican,” but leaving me with a cleaner conscience) or down to the Union Station food court, the stalwart of tourists and school groups alike where a Volcano taco has my name on it…
As you say, we’ve all been there.
Thanks for the wonderful mini-essay, and the peering down deep into your conflicted foodie soul.
You’re in the lead …
Good morning, Todd,
I am coming back to DC for a visit with a friend who has never been. She is very adventurous with food (so far) and I want to “wow” her, but also show off DC. Little Serrow and Central are the top of my list, alas we won’t have time for Komi or Minibar. Luckily she has business lunches at the Oval Room and Rasika as well.
What is new (or new-ish) that shouldn’t be missed in DC and thoughts on what shouldn’t be missed that isn’t so new? Less exciting news…I will be in Orlando for a conference. I’ve never been and want to avoid all things Disney. Any advice from you or chatters would be appreciated! (cost and cuisine are open) I love the chats, even from afar! Thanks!
I can’t personally help you out with Orlando, but maybe some others on here can.
But I’ve got you covered for DC.
New and not to be missed: Mintwood Place, in Adams Morgan, where Cedric Maupillier (formerly the chef at Central, and before that the chef de cuisine at Citronelle) is doing typically great work — cranking out straight-on bistro classics like cassoulet and steak tartare, as well as offering up some sly, smart takes on tradition (frogs’ legs with black walnut romesco, a lamb tongue moussaka). There’s a whole boneless dorade with picholine olives and braised fennel that’s a knockout — beautifully conceived, perfectly executed. Speaking of dishes I could eat every day …
Less new that shouldn’t be missed, I’m going to recommend Fiola, Fabio Trabocchi’s place, which, when it opened, hadn’t quite come together. Well, it’s together now. Very together. If you find a better plate of pasta in this area, let me know.
Secret shame: Cheetos.
50 cents at the dirty water hot dog cart outside my office buys you a bag of Cheetos. The bright orange powder that stains your fingers. The salty but honestly not really that cheesy flavor that can’t be fulfilled by a lesser cheese snack.
Cheetos – that odd nubbly orange stick of snack food shame.
It’s true: that weird flavor that you know isn’t cheese, and doesn’t even taste like cheese, but, especially after you get going with eating them, somehow doesn’t matter, and you just find yourself scarfing down a bag before the guilt has time to get to you.
And I love your phrase — “oddly nubbly.”
You’re in the running …
With the demise of Michel, do you think there is any hope of fine dining taking root in Tysons Corner? It seems dysfunctional on so many levels, it looks doubtful to me.
To me, too.
I think that’s it for the foreseeable future. Bob Kinkead’s Colvin Run Tavern, Jonathan Krinn’s Inox, and now Michel Richard’s Michel.
And let’s not forget that Jeff Buben (Bistro Bis, Vidalia) has declined to take over the vacant Inox space.
Wendy’s Chocolate Frosty large with spicy King Pao chicken.
My favorite palce and I am not sure its still there or under same ownership was Schezuan Hose on 8th St SE across from Marine barracks. They delivered to the WNY. I would order for our director and have someone who was going out get me the Frosty.
Why because it helped me deal with working for the worst Federal Law Enforcement Command in the govt. Yeah the one with the TV show on TUes nights. Did you know they fiannly got arrest authority in CONUS in the early 2000’s.
Well, you know, sweet is one of the ways to beat — or tame — spicy. Milk is another. So if you’re going to tank down a mango lassi with your lamb vindaloo, why not a Wendy’s choco frosty to quench a Kung Pao chicken?
Thanks for playing and reminiscing, Clifton …
Had a deal to stay out at the Goodstone Inn in Middleburg this weekend. Had dinner there on Sunday night and man oh man, the braised short ribs I had were seriously the best I have ever tasted. Melt in your mouth!
That said, the prices there (and in Middleburg in general) are ASTRONOMICAL! $65 for an entree of lamb?? It rather blew my mind. I know you are a bit of a captive audience out there, but that is literally twice what is charged here in DC (hardly a “cheap” dining location).
Am I right that this seems totally out of whack?
You couldn’t be righter. That’s extortion.
$65 is the cost of A 5-COURSE TASTING MENU.
The Source was recently serving a lobster dish with a price tag of $62. Also ridiculous. But there you have the name Wolfgang Puck, an internationally known culinary figure, and a restaurant that’s in downtown DC, several blocks from the White House. Not that I’m defending it. It’s indefensible.
We’ve got tickets for a show at the Signature Theater in Shirlington Village and would love a pre-theater dinner recommendation. I looked into Carlyle but they don’t take reservations the night we will be going, and I don’t want to get stuck with a long wait. Do you have any other recommendations in or near Shirlington Village? Thanks!
I’m going to send you to Cheesetique — their new location has just opened in Shirlington Village.
I’m a fan of the one in Del Ray, where you can enjoy wine flights, good charcuterie and excellent cheese boards, a variety of mac n cheeses, one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches in the area, and a slate of tasty sandwiches and flatbreads.
I hope you go, and I hope you also come back on next week and let us know how your meal turned out …
So wrong, and thye make me feel TERRIBLE after eating them but there is nothing, nothing like some BBQ Fritos (and not the BBQ honey twist nonsense, the old school kind) and a Dr. Pepper to ease a serious hangover. I know they are 0% natural and the color of sunburn, but man are they delicious. Upside that they are hard enough that my jaw inevitably aches after eating half the bag and I have to stop.
I love it!
Especially that last line — your saving grace.
And what is it about Fritos and Dr. Pepper. It’s not the same with anything else, is it?
Thanks for playing, EM …
In your opinion, should menus/servers warn diners of extreme heat?
Example: Dined recently at El Centro D.F. My dining partner ordered the pork carnitas tacos, which comes with a (generous) side of Habanero salsa. Dug right in and damn, it was hot. I mean, really seriously hot. In another instance, the red curry at Shophouse also packs a serious punch.
Now, I love heat. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to actually order something hot. But I just imagine the faces of the unsuspecting in these situations.
What do you think? What does “spicy” or “hot” even mean anymore to most diners/restauranteurs?
I think they should warn you; I think that’s part of giving good service.
The server isn’t there just to drop off food and drink; he or she is there to help guide you through the meal — making recommendations, alerting you to specials, prepping you for a dish that may be unusual, steering you away from disappointments, etc.
Thought your readers might be interested in the list of Washington food folk who made it into the James Beard semi-finals.
The narrower list won’t come until March, of course, but hype season has begun.
Best New Restaurant: Fiola, Little Serow
Outstanding Bar Program: Columbia Room, PX
Outstanding Chef: Frank Ruta, Palena
Outstanding Pastry Chef: Tiffany MacIsaac, Birch & Barley
Outstanding Restaurant: Marcel’s
Outstanding Restaurateur: Ashok Bajaj of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group
Outstanding Service: Restaurant Eve
Outstanding Wine Program: CityZen, Restaurant Eve
Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional: Greg Engert of Neighborhood Restaurant Group
Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic: Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve, Tony Conte of The Oval Room, Scott Drewno of The Source, Johnny Monis of Komi, Peter Pastan of Obelisk, Vikram Sunderam of Rasika and Bryan Voltaggio of Volt.
You must know something of how they’re feeling right now, being a Beard winner yourself.
J-Voelk, thanks for posting this and giving everyone the heads-up …
And best of luck to all the nominees!
Foodie shame: way too frequent takeout from Crisp & Juicy
Explained: A half-chicken from C&J with an order of yucca and extra spicy sauce is less than $10 and provides an easy dinner for two. The chickens are no doubt of the mass-produced, Chesapeake-polluting variety we would never purchase otherwise. Their green vegetable offerings are sad and not worth buying.
Justified: We sometimes add a salad. Although quality can vary, the median chicken is delicious, and their yucca offerings and convenient location make them our winner over EPR. We try to save the Bay in other ways and support our local farmers for other meals.
I love that line — “We try to save the Bay in other ways and support our local farmers for other meals.” So much wrestling for the self-aware foodie, so much inner torment …
Among my secret shames — my preference for corn-fed beef when it comes to a big, thick steak. I understand that grass-fed is better for the world and is better for the cow. But the taste is richer with corn-fed, just as the taste of duck liver is indisputably more luscious because those ducks have been fattened on things they shouldn’t eat. (And yes, I realize that the commercial beef industry dwarfs that of the makers of foie gras. I’m just talking, here, about taste.)
Previous chats have asked about wait times.
I got there at 5:20 on Friday and the line was out the door! I got the second seating at around 7:15,and had drinks at the nearby Agora.
The food was fresh, SPICY, and vibrant. Hubby was sweating throughout his meal 🙂
It was such a great experience…wonderful service, unique, delicious food, etc. I can’t wait to go back in the summer to see what menu changes they make.
Thanks for the inside dope …
I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how Little Serow evolves. I fully expect it to be a better restaurant a year from now than today. I don’t think you can say that about a lot of new places. A year in, the majority of good or promising places either find a level and stay there, or have already begun to slide.
I think Johnny Monis is going to continue to push himself, and explore these traditions, and find ways to make this particular cuisine his own — and to do so without deracinating his adopted culture or elevating himself above it.
Clearly you are not a Member of the Jungle.
To be racked is to have your call saved, and put into consideration for the Huge Call of the Day. You get racked enough, you get invited to the Smack Off, where Rome’s “best” callers get to whale on eachother and sports figures (it calls to mind the boxing scenes in Boardwalk Empire’s early eps- you know). “Big Fan” did a pretty good job of depicting what Jim Rome’s hardcore audience is like.
And I feel even worse about myself that I know all this.
I mean, talk about secret shame!
And you know even more than I …
Thanks for writing in.
Strong take. ; )
Can’t decide what to have for lunch? Enter the world of the steam table smorgasbord – kimbap and mac n cheese, yes please. Sesame chicken and jello salad, it’s all there by the scoop full. Good Thyme (on M street) and Sizzling Express (multiple locations) are two of DC’s finest examples. Alas the late lamented Skyline Cafe on 13th is no more.
Is this a tip, or are you divulging your secret shame?
I guess the beauty is, it could be both. …
I’m heading off for lunch in a few, and so it’s time to pick a book winner.
I’ve spent the past ten minutes re-reading and evaluating, and I’m gonna have to go with “Silver Spring.” I liked the justification, the way it nicely encapsulates the debate that so many of us have with ourselves when we hit a place or eat a food that doesn’t live up to our loftiest foodie ideals.
So, “Silver Spring,” drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get a copy of Food & Wine’s Best of the Best Cookbook Recipes! out to you today …
Be well, everyone, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]