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 s
een–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.
I realized the other day that I didn’t have a favorite locally made ice cream. Do you? Any suggestions welcome, though we do love a place where you can get a cone or sundae as well as a pint to go.
My favorite is Moorenko’s — Susan Moorenko’s local, independently owned and hand-crafted ice cream.
I like going to her shop in Silver Spring, and I also like picking up a pint at local grocery stores.
My favorite flavors are the Danish Sweet Cream, the Lemon Curd (they make their own curd), the Coconut, the Mint Chocolate Chip.
… Who else has a favorite?
And as long as I’m asking some questions of you — what are some places I can’t miss in Rehoboth? …
A quick comment and question. Took your newest Where I’m Eating Now advice and went to East Pearl. LOVED IT. Never has Hong Kong fare before but I have just started. Shared the 3 selection bbq (we had duck, chicken and pork) and meat was succulent with a lovely, was it au jus? Skin delish but not crisped. Also had the Hong Kong shrimp dumpling soup, dumplings are out of this world.
Now the question: how would you describe the predominant characteristics of Hong Kong Chinese cuisine?
Glad you had such a good time!
I think East Pearl is already in the top rank of Chinese restaurants in the area, and I want to say that it’s only been open two months.
Even the heavier stuff is prepared with a light hand, and there’s a real vibrancy to the lighter stuff. They do a plate of Chinese broccoli with pork belly, and you wouldn’t think it to look at it but it’s a dish of real finesse.
And those two dishes you mentioned: killer. The soyed chicken is the best in the area, and yes, that “sauce” is, in part, the chicken’s own juices — mixed with soy. The shrimp dumpling soup I could eat every day of the week. That broth! Those beautifully made dumplings!
What defines the cuisine? Well, a lot of seafood and fish, for one thing. And lightness, for another — a light hand with saucing, and a light hand when it comes to seasoning. It’s really the polar opposite of Szechuan cooking, if you think about it — with Szechuan, you are hit with fire and smoke and pungency. Here, it’s lightness, delicacy, balance.
And because Hong Kong is such a bustling port city, you have a lot of different influences coming into play — Cantonese cooking is a big one. But you also see things like curry punching up a dish of noodles. The egg custard tarts you see at dim sum — which they don’t serve at East Pearl, but which is a big deal in Hong Kong and some Hong Kong-style restaurants in the U.S. — reflects a Western influence.
By the way — speaking of dim sum: there’s a very good new dim sum place across from the Eden Center, Falls Church: Hong Kong Pearl Seafood. Go.
Mary & Barry:
Am hoping you and the chatters can design our “meal plan” for 36 hours in San Francisco, which kicks off our honeymoon in Maui. It’s not for awhile (October) but we are building our gift list, which we want to be heavier on the restaurant/experiences variety than the blender/china variety.
So for San Fran we need 2 dinners (Sun & Mon) and 1 Monday breakfast/lunch. We’re looking for everything to feel inherently local. What I mean by that is if I were making this same recommendation for someone for DC, I would pick Central and Etete for the dinners. One upscale, very well known spot with a location that exudes power and food that feels a little Southern – all of which I think is very representative of DC. Then Etete for more of an “adventure” into a culture that has a significant presence in DC. For breakfast/lunch maybe Ted’s Bulletin to add a new neighborhood and provide access to Eastern Market. Can you take it from here?
P.S. Any Maui ideas?
My San Fran picks: The House, in North Beach, and Mission Street Chinese, on Mission.
I know, I know — they’re both Asian. But when in Rome …
I’ll be interested to hear all the different places the chatters tell you to hit …
I like your gift-list sensibility. I think experiences, being inherent spiritual, are better than material. Especially when those material things are built to break in a year or two.
(My wife’s iPhone, 23 months old, is already balky and acting like an old, broken-down thing. Built-in obsolescence. I hate it. We all should hate it. But we don’t. We run and buy the new toy, and are happy, and tell everyone we know to run along and buy the new toy, too — relishing that brief moment when we have the latest slickest version of the latest slickest gadget in the world and no one else we know does … )
Shalom Todd! Back from a 10-day trip traveling around Israel. What an amazing country. Here are some culinary highlights from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv…there is some good eating to be had in Israel!
In and around Jerusalem:
Lebanese Food Restaurant (That’s its name!). Located in Abu Ghosh, approx. 15 minutes west of Jerusalem (you will need to drive). Abu Ghosh is considered the Hummus Capitol of Israel. Excellent hummus, falafel, labeneh, and lamb kabob.
Rama’s Kitchen (Judean hills above Abu Ghosh). Only open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Rama’s Kitchen does farm-to-table that would make Alice Waters weep. Get anything cooked in their Taboun oven. Also good: Tomato Salad with Green Tehini. Chopped Lamb Pastry. Goat Cheese Tart.
Abu Shukri (Old City Jerusalem) – The Abu Shukri family is infamous around Israel for hummus. Also very good falafel. Abu Shukri is a small cafe located directly across from the Fifth Station of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa.
Machneyuda and Yudaleh (Jerusalem) – Sister restaurants located across the street from each other, near Mahane Yehuda market. Chefs shop the market daily. Machneyuda is a riot of a restaurant where the Arak flows freely. Yudaleh is more of a small plates/wine bar type place. Both are excellent.
Carmel Market: Open air street market, look for the guys cooking up lamb patties stuffed into pita.
Beach Cafes – Skip the hotel breakfast buffet and wander down to the beach. The promenade is lined with beach cafes, many open for breakfast. Look for a dish called Jachnun, a flaky rolled pastry type bread from Yemen served with side dishes for dipping – hard-boiled eggs, a grated tomato dip, peppery shug, hummus, tahini.
Juice Bars – All over Tel Aviv, and indeed most of Israel, are little kiosk juice bars serving fresh squeezed juice (orange, lemon, pomegranate, carrot, whatever is in season). Hit as many as you can!
Dr. Shakshouka – Located in Jaffa (Tel Aviv’s bohemian neighbor) Dr. Shakshouka is a funky cafe specializing in…shakshouka – a saucy dish of tomatoes, onions, peppers topped with poached eggs. Total stoner food.
You don’t have to sell me on Dr. Shakshouka. I love the place.
Fantastic shakshouka. And fantastic shwarma, too — my God, but it’s good.
It’s an amazing country, with amazing people, and also an amazing place to eat. The raw materials are superb — great produce, as good as anything you’d find in California, maybe better. When was the last time you bit into a fragrant cucumber?
There’s great cheap food, street food, and in the better restaurants there’s nothing sterile or forced. Eucalyptus, in Jerusalem, not far from the Tower of David, should go on your list of spots for next time. The cooking’s refined and beautiful, and a meal here is a wondrous thing. I also love Carmella Bistro, in Tel Aviv. Such an expressive, soulful place.
I’ve had a lifelong romance with Atomic FireBalls. They were my Mom’s favorite. Because my Mom was the coolest person in the world, FireBalls were, by simple logic, the coolest candy in the world. I can remember the first time I ever tried one – they were big, exotic, and PAINFUL. They were nothing like the candies I had tasted to that point. They weren’t particularly sweet, they burned my tongue, and they were hard to manage in a 5-year-old’s tiny mouth. But my Mom loved them, and so did I. Every day for an entire summer I would take a dime to my summer camp’s refreshment stand and buy one for each of us. When she picked me up, we’d each expertly pop our FireBall through the plastic pouch and into our mouths. We were just a couple of ladies enjoying an adult treat on a hot afternoon. [And now, I’m off to call Mom…]
We have us a leader …
I haven’t met your mom and already I like her. And you caught a whole world in a few sentences. I love it. I am THERE with you …
You mentioned my favorite penny candy in the contest description: root beer barrels. Whenever I smell root beer, I’m reminded of the small Connecticut lake town where I spent my summers as a kid. In the town square–complete with small white protestant church with steeple, of course–there was a little store full of baskets and bins of penny candy.
My mom would let me and my sister each fill one small, white, waxy paper bag with sweets. We loved the herbal intensity of the root beer barrels–big piles of which were stored in an actual barrel at one corner of the shop. We’d load up our little bags and then, at dusk, race down to the lake with our bounty. Each evening, someone at the girl scout camp across the way would play taps at sundown and we’d sit on the splintery edge of the dock and listen, sucking on our candy, feet skimming in the lake as minnows nibbled at our toes.
I’m telling you — drop little Marcel down into the American suburbs in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, and he’s not going to fixate on an elegant little cookie and turn it into a springboard to a world of memory and feeling in his later prose.
Jessica, thanks for taking a moment to write this. It’s beautiful. Again: a whole world in a few sentences.
It’s too bad you’re disqualified on account of being Jessica. ; )
Restaurant Starved McLean:
Todd, Do you know when Bistro Vivant plans to open? Thanks.
Was supposed to have opened … now.
Anna Spiegel, our super staffer, blogged about it a month ago, and the expected opening date was last week. These things happen. We’ll keep you posted.
It’s an interesting-sounding project. The restaurant is taking over the former McLean 1919 space, in McLean. Aykan Demiroglu, formerly of Locanda, and Domenico Cornacchia, of Assagi, are behind it. The chef is Christopher Carey, who has cooked previously at the Ashby Inn and the Wine Kitchen.
It’ll be a bistro menu, and each month will feature dishes from different regions around France.
I read recently on the City Paper blog that the owner of La Forchetta thinks the pizza there will be better than 2 Amys. Based on what you know, is that possible? What do you think of Roberto Donna working at a pizza place? Thanks! Love the chat.
I mean, anything’s possible.
And RD put out some good pizzas at Bebo. Some very good pizzas, sometimes. The operative word is “sometimes.” I had some excellent food at Bebo. I also had some food I wouldn’t have served to guests in my own home.
And I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such condescension and such disdain for the customer as I — and my guests — did at Bebo.
That doesn’t get talked about much anymore. The talk is of tax troubles and his abuse of trust of his staff, not paying them for months and months. Those are serious things. But it’s all serious, if you ask me. Things flow from the top, from the power source. It’s amazing what mistreatment can do at a place, how it can completely unravel something so promising.
Can he cook? He can. If he’s just slinging dough — and think about that for a second, a man who ruled the city’s dining scene a generation ago, reduced now to slinging dough — but if he’s just slinging dough, I think the pizzas might be pretty darn good. Hakan Ilhan is getting one of the most talented kitchen grunts in the city — no, in the country.
But you know, we’ll see.
Does RD stay engaged for more than a few months?
If some attention comes his way for something other than his penchant for getting into trouble, does he begin to dream about yet another comeback, with a place of his own?
2 Amys has been doing this a long, long time.
It’s gorgeous outside! Can you tell me a few of your favorite spots for dining al fresco? I have a car and am willing to travel for a good meal in the sunshine (or dusk, by the time I break out of the office).
There’s a lot of al fresco dining in DC — lucky for us.
We’re a regular Cafe Society (minus the wonderful languor, the superior fashion sense, the discourse that goes beyond politics and pop culture, and a populace that would rather be than do).
The following would all be at the top of my list: Johnny’s Half Shell, Brasserie Beck, Cashion’s, PS 7’s, Oval Room, Poste, Zaytinya, the revamped Cafe St.-Ex, Belga Cafe.
E.M.B. of Greenbelt, MD:
I come from a line of sandwich people, so even my candy involves a sandwich. My mother was the best sandwich maker I know and my mother-in-law was the best sandwich eater I know. During my teen years I would often make a GRADE A SANDWICH. This consisted of a square of milk chocolate (about 1/8″ thickness) flanked by two shortbread cookies approximately the size of the piece of chocolate which was imprinted with the words, ‘grade A.’ Ah, memory!
Now THAT’S a sandwich.
And thanks for writing in today … I love you, always.
(My mother, the best sandwich romanticizer I know.)
RE: Restaurant Starved McLean:
What are your thoughts on why McLean is so starved for good restaurants?
I know the old line about wealthy McLeanians all having personal chefs and never going out to eat. But given the increasing interesting in dining, the boom of new restaurants in Washington, and “this economy,” that argument doesn’t seem to fit.
It’s a really interesting question. And people in McLean have been asking if for years and years.
But I think the problem is with the question.
You could also ask: Why is Palisades starved for good restaurants? (Even after BlackSalt arrived, friends of my wife’s who live there — who already had Makoto, an excellent sushi restaurant, in their midst, and easy access to Georgetown — complained of having “no place to go.”)
Or: Why is Potomac?
Your question presupposes that affluence is a condition of having good restaurants. Affluence and, presumably, sophisticated diners — or at least, diners with a lot of money. But restaurant pockets or cultures like we’re talking about don’t come about because of these factors. They come about because of population density, and because of access to transportation, and because of the proximity to cultural institutions (see: Penn Quarter).
McLean doesn’t have any of those three things. Neither does Palisades or Potomac.
Cleveland Park, DC:
My pennies, and later in childhood, nickels were always saved for one store, and one candy. Every summer my family would make the two and a half hour drive from New York to our tiny cabin nestled in the woods in the Berkshires. If my older sister and I made it through the car ride without eliciting a single “I’ll pull this car over right now!” from my Dad, we were rewarded with a stop at the General Store in the one street town of Otis, Massachusetts. It was another world entirely, two narrow aisles that sold everything from hardware, to VHS movies, to milk and eggs. But I only had eyes for one tiny rack next to the register. It was loaded with Mary Janes, Pez, everything a sugar-loving 7 year old could hope for. But for me, it was all about the Hot Lips. Chewy, cinnamon-y, and delicous, they left the telltale red residue on my teeth for hours. And they came with the added bonus of being able to use them to entertain my sister and I on the last leg of the journey, placing them in front of our lips and doubling over in hysterics at the resulting picture.
Haven’t though about those in AGES. And oh yeah — half the pleasure, no more than half, was in putting on the pout-lips.
Thanks for playing. You’re in contention …
Who else’s got one?
Driving through Aldie last weekend I saw signs for a new BBQ place off of Route 50 (just past the great little wine shop at the Aldie Peddler). Do you know anything about it? Worth trying?
What’s it called, do you know?
I wonder if it’s a permanent spot for the guy who had a smoker out by Gilbert’s Corner — The Pit Stop …
I like the Pit Stop okay. It’s tasty. I wish it were more tender, more luscious.
Todd, I can’t seem to keep track of all the new restaurants opening in Washington. Could you tell me 2 or 3 that might be worth checking out?
I think the three best restaurants to have opened in the city in the past 6 months are Little Serow, Mintwood Place and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.
I want to put in a special mention for Cork, which is not new, but which has a new chef (who is not new to DC, but new to Cork): Rob Weland. In effect, Cork is like a new restaurant these days — and more delicious than ever.
I’m off to eat soft shells, fries and ice cream …
Then, time to let the wind coming off the white caps slap me in the face.
Lest you think I’ve got it too good — it’s warmer there than here. And not by a little …
Hill East, please drop me an email today at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get you your copy of Giada. Thanks so much for your terrific mini-essay.
And if any of you have great Rehoboth recs — for anything, not necessarily for just food — hit me at that address, too.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …