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.
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.
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.
Mintwood Place, DC
Perry’s owner Saied Azali was lucky to land Cedric Maupillier, formerly the chef at Central and before that the chef de cuisine at Citronelle, for his rusticky new bistro. The Toulon native is doing typically great work–cranking out lovingly faithful renditions of such bistro classics as cassoulet (see if you can finish it without two glasses of wine) and steak tartare (the tiny, crunchy tater tots on top are a clever allusion to his old boss, Michel Richard) 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.
* East Pearl, Rockville
A superlative addition to the unofficial Chinatown of northern Rockville, this cheery, three week-old restaurant is turning out uncommonly clean-tasting versions of standard Hong Kong-style fare, including shrimp dumpling soup, shrimp with walnuts, and soyed chicken (the slices of meat beneath the crispy, lacquered skin are not merely tender, but luscious). And don’t miss a Shanghai-style noodle dish that brings together angel hair, roast pork, shrimp, green onions and a generous spoonful of yellow curry powder into a light, greaseless and remarkably vivid whole.
* New this week
THIS WEEK’S CONTEST: Bring Something–or Someone–Back from the Past and win Kevin Zraly’s Complete Wine Course.
With the return of Chef Robert Donna to DC and the imminent re-opening of the Howard Theatre (celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson is consulting on the restaurant), I’m curious to know: Whom, or what, would you most like to see return to the Washington dining scene?
Do you pine for the stiff-backed maitre d’s of yesteryear who never, ever seemed to make a mistake? Is there some long-shuttered dive or diner from your past, like the late, great Henkel’s at Annapolis Junction, that you mourn like an old friend? Maybe, amid the profusion of charcuterie and beet-and-goat cheese salads that dominates the dining scene, you find yourself longing for the return of such bygone delicacies as Lobster Thermidor or Clams Casino. Or perhaps you can still recall every exquisite detail of your last meal at the famed Jean-Louis at The Watergate and would do anything to live it all over again.
Whatever you pick, be sure to justify it with a thoughtful, detailed argument. I’ll announce the winning entry before the end of the chat.
At your suggestion we ventured up to Minerva in Gaithersburg for dinner Saturday night. What a great experience!
From the beginning they welcomed our toddler and there were plenty of others there early that evening. We were surprised to see a full house, not something we encounter often in Indian restaurants.
Not only were the curries fantastic, fresh and vigorously spicy, but the “meal” option for $13 was a steal — our chosen dishes came with a full bread of choice each, soup, vegetable side, daal, raita (complete with thin slivers of crunchy fresh ginger), coffee or tea and a dessert of gulab jamun (one of the best versions I have had). It didn’t feel like a few extra things were thrown in, it felt like a complete, generous meal.
We have been looking for excellent Indian outside of Rasika and what we used to love at Passage to Indian and feel like we have found it here — albeit in more humble surroundings. I’d drive 45 minutes to eat here (but now live 10 minutes away, lucky me).
What do you like about it?
What do I like about it?
All the things you say up above — the great value, the liveliness of the space, the quality and consistency of the cooking.
I also like the lunch buffet at Minerva — at any of the Minervas. It’s terrific, one of the best Indian buffets in the area.
I’ll be interested in hearing more reports from you as you settle in to your new surroundings.
Just to pass an another quality Peruvian Chicken restaurant in Wheaton, one that was considered the best in the area in Washingtonian’s 2011 “Battle of the Birds” contest of the best Peruvian Chicken in the Washington area— El Pollo Kiki Riki, and better than the longtime leader (El Pollo Rico).
The results of that contest can be found at https://www.washingtonian.com/blogarticles/restaurants/bestbites/19326.html
My last visit to El Pollo Kiki Riki, though, was just okay. The problem with too many of these places these days, is letting the chicken sit for long stretches. It sits and gets dry. Or drier than it ought to be — drier than it was, anyway, when it first came off the spit.
Pollo Cabaña in Greenbelt, which I wrote about a couple of months ago, is doing a pretty good job of not letting anything sit for long. I think they’re doing a good job over there.
I miss the old Chinatown in Burke VA on Burke Rd. Miss their Subgum Wonton, Sam Soo Bow, and Sum Gib Tai. Old school Cantonese. They had the best Cantonese in the NOVA but they sold out and now its your ruun of the mill Korean American version of Chinese food. Place was just a a whole in the wall. No seating
But not much of a case you made, there.
Then again, i don’t take it you’re much for making cases, are you? ; )
I’m curious about all the international cuisine in the area but feel so overwhelmed and uneducated when I walk into a Korean or Burmese or Peruvian place. I don’t know what the customs are or where to start with the ordering. I often feel like I am supposed to ask for some secret menu or something but don’t know the code of conduct. Do you have any suggestions on how to get started?
How to get started?
Pick up a copy of the Cheap Eats issue from 2011 (or look at it online), see which restaurants appeal to you from the descriptions, then follow the recommendations for best dishes.
(Peruvian, Burmese and Korean restaurants don’t have secret menus that I’m aware of; that’s a Chinese restaurant thing.)
Go in with an open mind and a willingness to try things, make friends with the staff, and, on your first couple of visits, order more food than you think you can eat. I say that because that way you’ll be sure to find at least a couple things you like, and it will expose you to the various tastes of the culture. If you find that you like a lot of it, you can always pack up what you don’t finish and have leftovers for lunch the next day.
Blast from the Past:
If Mr. Donna really wanted to pay off his debts, he would bring back the late great Galileo Grill.
The juxtaposition of Chef Donna slinging roast pork shoulder sandwiches in his upscale Laboratorio space. The confused look of suit-clad lobbyists dining in the main room as the sandwich line snaked out the front door. People’s necks craning as they shuffled up to the front of the line. The banter of Chef Donna as he put together the sandwiches. The cash only bucket…make your own change.
But really it all centered on the sandwich: Roast Pork Shoulder ($5), add broccoli rabe ($2), add provolone ($1), peppers and onions and green sauce. Beautiful. Now that would make a good food truck.
The “confused looks of suit-clad lobbyists” — honestly, I liked going as much for that as for the sandwiches.
And the sandwiches were killer. That roast pork shoulder with broccoli rabe and provolone was one of the greatest sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.
But the incongruity of it all … I loved it when some of those people trooping through the door were got up in shorts and t-shirt, and all the diners who were paying $200 for lunch turned and stared, incredulous. That was best of all.
It seems ages ago now, doesn’t it?
We have a leader …
What I miss?
When was the last time you saw (beef) liver and onions (in a non-ironic way) on the menu? I guess there are diners that might still carry it, but I grew up with it; I guess it’s symptomatic of eating habits changing over the decades.
You know what else I miss? Sitdown Chinese restaurants. There are still standouts like Sichuan Pavilion and A&J, but for every one of those, there’s a dozen gross buffets, or simply takeout joints with no seating.
I like what you say about liver and onions, and wish you had more of it to say. Unironically, of course. (There might be a cookbook in it.)
As for standout “sit-down” Chinese restaurants, add the excellent East Pearl, which I wrote about up top, to your list. It’s worth a drive. In fact, at this point — with an admittedly small sample size of one meal — I’d probably put it above Sichuan Jin River (the name changed a couple of months ago) and A&J. It was that good.
I miss Le Steak in Georgetown.
Menu was limited to salad, steak with a wonderful mustard sauce, delicious thin french fries and a choice of dessert. Intimate setting, French music, personable staff. They tried expanding to a soulless office building in Tysons with a broader menu and then both restaurants closed. It was our special occasion restaurant, and I think about it often even now, at least 15 years after they closed.
I know a few people who remember it fondly.
Mark Bucher, of BGR, has acknowledged it as one of the inspirations for Medium Rare, in Cleveland Park.
Note to the young’uns: There’s nothing new under the sun …
He’s trying again? Good for him. The Washingtonian is giving space to this? Shame on you (the magazine).
I give a lot of credit for him to keep trying but honestly, I’m getting tired of all the press he is getting. Let him rebuild the old-fashioned way. A lot of what went wrong is his own doing, his choice. Not paying your taxes, not paying your employees. Look, I’m not saying the restaurant business is easy; surely it is not. People have choices and make choices and he made some poor ones. Do I think he needs to be punished forever for them? No, and that is why I applaud him for continuing to try. Let’s just stop giving it press. The time for press is when he does what he does well AND is able to respect that running a business, you pay your employees and taxes. Now that will be worth the news and the ink with which to print the story!
I hear you.
I think it’s unconscionable that a restaurant owner would work his employees for long, hard hours — 12, 14 hours a day — encouraging them to think of themselves as part of an extended family, and then not pay them. And not a one time thing, on account of the struggles of the operation, but a regular thing. That’s abuse.
And then there’s the whole matter of the taxes.
At the same time, I don’t see a problem with writing about someone who has done bad things, and who has now resurfaced with a new venture. That’s what news is — writing about what’s new.
Praising that venture before it has earned it, or writing about the man without writing about his misdeeds and crimes — now that would be shameful.
I will always have a fond place in my heart for Le Lion d’Or.
Probably more for sentimental reasons than the food since it was so long ago I can hardly remember anything I ate there. As a broke recent college grad living in group houses and shared apartments, I always looked forward to the visits of my parents and their friends which invariably included a request to reserve a nice place for dinner.
More often than not, I chose Le Lion d’Or (although sometimes I opted for Vincenzo). It seemed sophisticated to me, and I rather enjoyed the jacket and tie requirement. It made me appear like an adult at a time I certainly did not feel like one. It was a glimpse into a world I never thought I could get to myself, from the opulent decor to the French menu full of unpronounceable words in a language I did not understand. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to dredge up that memory.
Beautifully done, Arlingtongue.
I think your words should resonate with anyone who has ever been in that circumstance, which is probably most of us — young, awkward, slightly dazzled but too scared to let it show, desperately hungering to be accepted into a new, adult world …
I think we’ve got a tie …
Heading up to Manhattan and looking for suggestions on good lunch and brunch spots in the city. What is your opinion on Gotham Bar & Grill? Have always heard good things and that the plates look like works of art. Also, did you know that Adam Longworth who was the previous chef at 701 (came from Gotham to 701) is now back at Gotham Bar & Grill. Also, which Michelin starred restaurant in NYC would you most want to dine at right now? Look forward to your response. Thanks!
It’s been a while since I’ve been to Gotham Bar & Grill, so I’d hate to comment there.
The one Michelin starred restaurant I’d most want to dine at right now? Probably Marea.
Some suggestions for spots for lunch … Sripraphai in Queens, for Thai; Cupola Samarkanda II in Brooklyn, for Uzbek cooking; Cafe Glechik in Brighton Beach, for Ukrainian; Kulushkat in Brooklyn, for falafel; Bouchon at Columbus Circle (Time Warner building), for Keller food; Don Antonio in midtown, for pizza.
Montmartre – Sauteed calf liver with mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, balsamic and onion sauce $18.95
And a good, unironic preparation if ever there was one. Thanks for thinking of that, Van Ness.
Thanks for your response. I did want to just add for clarification as to why I don’t think he needs more press at this time. While I understand your point of writing what is new, which is news, I think there are other stories that don’t get covered or press time. People make choices of what to include, what not to include. Maybe it’s the way the world is, but I think we sometimes give the attention to those who seek attention and will go to whatever lengths to get it and I think if we stop giving media attention to attention seekers and stop rewarding self-indulgent behavior, we might spend the time and resources on the worthy news.
I’m saying that that’s what news is.
I’m not saying that I always like that that’s what it is.
I think about people who do good things in this world — who alter our ways of thinking, or who save lives or inspire lives, or who move us with their imagination and empathy. And I almost never see them on TV or read about them in print. They never get attention, or never the attention they deserve.
I miss Il Mulino and their stiff-backed, yet deceptively warm service.
I have more of a personal history with Il Mulino. Like many Washingtonians, I didn’t grow up here and my family and I had been going to the Il Mulino near my home for every special occasion. I celebrated my graduation from high school and college there. I had my first glass of wine there. And when my Dad came to visit his grown-up daughter in DC, I took him to Il Mulino. It was just like we were at home. Minus the allegations of mob activity.
I loved the dark, luxe dining area. They put every Italian restaurant in this city to shame with their parmesan cheese, bread basket and bruschetta offerings, all of it on the house for every guest (cough Eliser cough). The food was classic Italian at it’s best and I’ll miss it for all the memories that I shared with it and its out of town counterpart.
You remember it a bit differently than I — my lingering impression is of its size and impersonality — but no matter for our purposes here. I like the way you make a case for it, weaving your (recent) memories with the details you’ve held onto. Food and restaurants are real anchors that way for a lot of us. Thank you.
I would not want to see anyone from the past come back. I would like DC to keep moving forward, where young chefs can make a name for themselves and eventually make DC their home for their future restaurant(s).
A good example is Dan O’Brien at Season Pantry. He is providing DC with a unique take on food not only with his supper club but also with the items he and his staff make from scratch for the market. Nicholas Stefanelli of Bibiana: local guy worked at Maestro then went to NYC and now is back leading the kitchen at Bibiana. his food is excellent and would love to see what he would do with a place of his own.
But I mean, it’s just a game after all. Isn’t there some dish, some cuisine, some restaurant — some something — that you miss?
As to young chefs having a chance, here, to make a name for themselves — I don’t think things at the moment are any worse than they were, and actually a lot better. Depending, of course, on your perspective.
O’Brien was clever to start his supper club. It’s an “in.” The food trucks are also “in”s, and relatively cheap to swing; and that platform may eventually lead to a sit-down restaurant, as it did for Anastasiya Laufenberg and Enzo Algarme at Pupatella, in Arlington. A gas station Mexican spot, R&R, has now led to a food court spot at a mall in White Marsh for Rodrigo Albarran-Torres and, soon, a full-service restaurant somewhere.
I miss the turkey club at the late lamented Arlington Grill.
Bacon grilled to perfection ie just to crunchy with some chew left, fresh tomatoes that tasted like a tomatoe should even in the dead of winter. crisp iceberg lettuce that was never soggy or had brown edges. White bread toasted to the perfect shade of medium micha brown. Never burnt or beige in color and most important never soggy. A good deli turkey, properely seasoned with salt and pepper and served with a cold draft beer in a mug that was chilled to perfection in the freezer. And lets not forget the entertainment and the ladies. Tbars and pasties rule!
Not pastis, the anise-flavored French drink.
Not pasty, the little British pie.
Clifton, Clifton, Clifton …
And you not only used the expression “grilled to perfection,” but you also used the expression “chilled to perfection.”
Thank you for your suggestions! I actually looked into reservations for Marea but unfortunately they are completely booked during the time I plan on being in NYC. I have heard wonderful things about the food Chef White has been putting out at Marea. So instead of Marea my wife and I called this past saturday morning to get reservations at Eleven Madison Park (EMP). It took 62 tries but we were finally able to get through and snag a reservation. I will definately keep an eye out for an openings that might take place at Marea. Thanks!
Is that 62 “busy” calls?
Or 62 days of calling?
Either way, I wouldn’t have had the patience.
And I probably wouldn’t want to go after all that, because my expectations would be so incredibly high that one false move — an empty smile from the host, a seat in the room that I didn’t like, butter that was served too cold, a dish that was even the slightest bit oversalted, a piece of fish that turned up dry on one corner — and the whole night would begin to come apart for me.
A friend of mine has a race on Sunday morning, and I promised to take her somewhere to carb load on Saturday night. Any Italian places come to mind?
We’re looking for a place where we can catch up, get a nice portion of fresh pasta, and that won’t be annoyed by questions/substitutions (between the cheeses and cured meats, Italian is challenging for pregnant people!). We actually did Assaggi together once, and I was a huge fan of the pappardelle with boar ragu. Should we try that again? Or should I stop by Vace around the corner for a pound or two of their pasta? Any of your own recent homemade creations or recipes you’d recommend? We’ll go pretty much anywhere within a 45 minute or so drive of DC.
If you can get in, and can swing the cost (it’s not super-expensive, but it’s not easily swingable, either, for most of us), I’d try Fiola.
It’s not an Italian restaurant, but the new Mintwood Place, in Adams Morgan, has an outstanding tagliatelle with lamb bolognese. I want to say it’s $19.
If you want something simpler and cheaper, you could hit Pasta Plus, in Laurel, or Da Marco, in Silver Spring — portions are massive, and the pastas are generally good for the price (at Da Marco, the key is to order the dishes that are tagged “fresh homemade.” “Homemade” means made on the premises, then frozen. Not bad, but not the same as made that day.)
Clarendon is now “hip” but 30 years ago all it was to me (at 6) was the area down the road where Chiang Foong was.
My parents would take me and my sister there for dinner with their friends and every time it was special. I drank hot tea like a grown up (um, except I might have surrepticiously added sugar) and tried all the food, but also giggled when my sister ordered her favorite, the pupu platter. I don’t know if it was considered great Chinese food, but to me, as a kid, it was the best.
Thanks for playing …
It’s funny how we remember this stuff. And that our memories are often of places that we probably wouldn’t be too proud to talk about hitting, but back then they seemed exotic and grand.
Hope I’m not too late!
Liver and onions is a dish that really evokes a lot of extreme emotions; personally, I really love it, because it gets to the meat of it: the chalky, metallic taste that liver has, mitigated by carmelized onions, and maybe a dash of lemon-pepper gives so many flavors melding into a unique dish.
If it’s done wrong, it can make you an enemy for life of that dish. But when it’s done right- oh man. It’s sort of like brussells sprouts- people claim to hate them, but if they’re just roasted, simply dressed with a little olive oil, salt and pepper- it’s a revelation. Hopefully liver will get its due again.
I think you really captured the fine line that liver rides.
I’m not a huge fan, but I do like it. It really is something that has to be prepared almost perfectly.
On a related note — every so often I will get cravings for chopped chicken liver, though I tend not to think of myself as someone who is a great lover of chopped chicken liver. But there’s something there that fills a need, I suppose …
62 phone calls.
I too would have given up if I had to try for 62 days. The reservation group though at EMP was very professional and took time to note down all our dietary restrictions, without rushing us to get to the next call.
I hope it lives up to the hype it has been receiving since it received its third michelin star.
You’ll see, won’t you?
And I hope you’ll favor us all with a report when you’re back …
I would like to bring back Bill Clinton to Washington, DC. Now there was a president who could eat. Also, when he was around I felt like I had enough money to eat out in the finest local restaurants without worrying about the bottom line.
Though our current first couple is good about supporting local restaurants, in this age of austerity it’s hard to enjoy an extravagant night out. Bring back the Clinton years!
It’d be interesting to do a side-by-side dining comparison and see, but my guess would be that the Obamas are even bigger restaurant-goers than were the Clintons.
But yeah, lots of people were doing better back then. Not me; I was in grad school and then teaching college and writing book reviews, essays, fiction, etc. My eating-out budget as a critic is bigger than what I was paid to teach the youth of America.
Tells you a lot. That’s all I’ll say.
I’m off to lunch in a jif. But before I go, I want to announce our winner. The copy of Kevin Zraly’s Complete Wine Course goes to … Arlingtongue. A terrific reminiscence, full of great details, and — just as important — it evoked that feeling that I think we have all had in our lives, of being on the cusp of legitimate adulthood … and wanting full in.
Arlingtongue, drop me an email this afternoon — firstname.lastname@example.org — and I’ll be sure to mail the book off to you today.
And thank you all so much for all the great entries and memories and tributes.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]