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.
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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.
Producer’s note–Today’s contest: Which bar or restaurant would you move to Washington?
Good morning, chatters. Today’s challenge: Tell Todd about the restaurant you most wish could be magically uprooted and replanted in Washington. It could be the old roadside diner where you ate gravy fries as a kid, that unforgettable kaiseki spot in Tokyo, or the Barcelona tapas bar where you wiled away an afternoon watching soccer while eating the world’s best patatas bravas. Take us there, then tell us why Washington should be home to this particular establishment. As always, it’s much more about the explanation than it is the eatery. Todd’s favorite write-up will receive a copy of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything: The Basics, a streamlined version of the essential kitchen guide.
I just wanted to let everyone know we’re sorry about all the glitches with last week’s chat. I know it was frustrating. We were launching our new site (hope everyone likes the new look) and there were some growing pains. Things should be up and running now.
Also, we’ve saved submissions from last week’s contest and are opening it up to this week as well. Good luck everybody.
Apparently Curry Mantra no longer has dosas (nor idli for that matter)
Are you sure they’re no longer making them — or were they just out that night, or for a stretch of nights?
If they are no longer in the dosa business, then that’s a real, real shame. They were the best dosas in the area — worth a drive to Fairfax by themselves. The idli were good, too.
Good morning, everyone, and I hope all goes smoothly on the chat today — we had huge technical problems last week, after rolling out the new web design (which I hope you like).
I appreciate all the comments you sent on via email last Tuesday and all throughout the week about the problem and your frustrations. And thanks also for the very nice comments about the James Beard nomination, too — I’m very honored to be a finalist for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. Just to have my name associated with hers — that’s an honor in itself …
My parents are coming for a visit this weekend. My mom loves to try new foods, but my dad is a steak and potatoes guy. Where’s a nice — but not super expensive — place I can take them for dinner that will make them both happy?
I’d take them to The Majestic, in OId Town.
There’s a good bit on the menu that won’t alienate him, including a Caesar salad that I just had not long ago — one of the best I’ve ever had, and maybe the best I’ve ever had. It’s made tableside, and the dressing is every bit as zesty and rich as you would want it.
And there’s plenty there, too, for your mom and you; a recent special, a whole fried branzino with a Chinese black bean sauce, was terrific.
Dinner for three, including a drink for each of you and a dessert or two (think hard about the fried-to-order churros), you could probably manage for about $150 when all is said and done.
I would move Manresa from Los Gatos CA to DC.
The pristine and fresh ingredients that Chef Kinch uses in his cooking cannot be matched by other restaurants except maybe for the French Laundry.
Eating at Manresa was a revelation for me. It opened my eyes to what vegetables and fruits should taste like. My taste buds and eyes opened up after my meal there.
Thanks for playing …
I wonder what all the farm-to-table restaurants here think of that … ; )
Remember, everyone, that it’s not the place you choose so much as your framing of the place you choose, the justification you come up with. Doesn’t have to be a Manresa; could be a cheesesteak joint.
DC is has been deprived too long of real paella.
My first paella was at Jaelo, and I really questioned why people raved about a dish that tasted like a spanish risotto at this establishment.
I finally tried real paella at Socorrat in NYC and it all clicked. The burnt crust is the key to paella, hence the name of the restaurant..look up the definition 🙂 In a previous chat, I think I was told that DC might not appreciate the “burnt” aspect. I think DC has some of the most diverse cuisine and they deserve to taste real paella!
I’ll add it to my list for my next trip up. Thanks for the tip.
And thanks for playing …
(At this very moment, a certain swarthy and swaggering chef is grinding his teeth …)
Hey Todd –
First of all, love the blog, there have been some great chats the last few weeks, keep it up!
I recently won a bet with a co-worker which entitles me to a free lunch. Our office is at 1200 19th ST. NW DC. We love trying new places, but feel like we’ve run out of off-the-path lunch places. We’ve tried Axiom, BonMi, Shophouse, and Freshii just to name a few. Can you recommend something within walking distance that would be a good change-up for us?
Best Sandwich Place, right about 18th and L?
Fresh-carved, roasted turkey breast sandwiches.
You can even get a sandwich that will take you back to Thanksgiving — sliced fresh turkey topped with cranberry relish.
Have you been to the Greek Deli on 19th? Good stuff. Though if you go — good luck finding the pep to finish out the day.
What about C.F. Folks, also on 19th, next to The Palm? I call it The Anti-Palm. No big shots, no expense accounts, no dressing to impress, no steaks. I usually get the crabcake.
I want Tria Wine Bar in Philadelphia to come to Washington — an excellent program of interesting wine and beer selections, lots of weekly specials to keep it interesting (and sometimes inexpensive: see Sunday School), and plenty of tasty small plates to go along.
If I can’t have Tria, how about Pok Pok (Portland) or Momofuku?
Pok Pok or Momofuku I could see — but of course you’ll have to make separate cases for them. : )
I haven’t been, though I’ve heard good things about it. But I mean, it’s not as if Tria would come in and bring something the city was lacking.
BTW, Cork is, I think, more delicious than ever, with new chef Rob Weland, previously of Poste, at the helm. Anyone else been recently? Love the avocado with ground pistachio on grilled bread, the hamachi, and a recent special of gnudi in a fresh and vibrant spring pea puree. And the wine list remains the same, as fantastic as ever.
I would transplant Cebicheria La Mar in Lima, Peru to DC. It is an open air restaurant that has a cool yet informal atmosphere. There’s always a wait but it’s a wait worth enjoying. You can people watch and relax while enjoying a pisco sour and snack on some cancha. Cancha is the toasted corn that is traditionally served at Peruvian restaurants, as something to nibble on prior, and during, your meal. Ceviche is eaten only for lunch in Lima, when the seafood is very fresh. Cebicheria La Mar serves wonderful authentic Ceviche and Peruvian delicacies, as well as their own creative take on Ceviche. It was one of my most memorable and enjoyable meals in Lima.
I’m sure it’s wonderful. And we don’t have anything quite like what you describe — open-air Peruvian — but I really don’t think we’re lacking for Peruvian in this area.
I just had some great cancha last night …
I want to transplant I Fratellini from Florence. Almost literally a hole-in-the-wall lunch spot where you get a fresh panino and a glass (yes, an actual glass) of Chianti for a just a few Euro. You sit on the curb and eat your sandwich and drink your wine, then return the glass when you finish.
I love food trucks, but THIS is the trend I want to see in DC.
… And it’d never happen here.
I mean, people in DC don’t even permit themselves to drink a glass of wine — one glass — at lunch. Is one glass going to impair you for the rest of the day? It might actually help, in easing your digestion of a rich panino.
Thanks for playing … You’re in contention …
If I could pick one place to magically uproot and relocate to this area, it would be the local pizza joint, “Supreme House of Pizza and Subs” from my hometown of Brockton, MA. The ambiance was nothing special, with its mid-80s decor, cracked vinyl stools and lineoleum floors; the tiny shop caters to a working class clientele in a working class town. The Greek family that runs the place churns out a wicked pizza though, a worthy contender in the pantheon of New England/Cape Cod-style pizza. Eschewing all pretense, it is served in a cardboard pizza tray. Served hot, with a crunchy crust and hot puddles of grease pooled on surface, the tang of the pizza sauce is unmistakable. Served cold, the crunch of the crust remains and gives that extra measure of satisfaction the next morning. I was raised on Supreme Pizza, and having moved to DC, I often miss that mainstay of my childhood, the down-to-earth goodness of a simple food made by people who have known no other profession. It is a trade passed from generation to generation in this family, and if I could transplant it to Washington, you’d find me on the cracked vinyl barstools every afternoon.
I can picture this place exactly. I’d love to be there right now.
And I wish we had more spots like this in our midst. We all love to talk about favorite dishes and such, and love to recount our adventures on the trail of Michelin-starred restaurants and whatnot, but I believe it’s places like this that we remember most.
You’re in contention …
Thanks for playing.
Cleveland Park, DC:
Re:Tria. I stumbled upon it a few years ago on a trip to Philly and now go back every time I’m passing through on a Sunday. Maybe we don’t need to move it to DC, but I love Sunday school!
I’ll have to go.
That kind of enthusiasm — and devotion — is kind of persuasive …
Can I Move the Whole CIty of New Orleans?:
A long dark bar with ice cold beer with bent elbows seemingly sculpted onto their stools no matter the time of day. Further into the dim light, cheeked table clothes and a menu scrawled on the wall. Gumbo, oyster po’boys, turtle soup – and best of all mounds of steaming hot crawfish. Lost in a residential neighborhood that I wish were mine in DC, but I know it can’t be. It can only be in New Orleans, where Frankie and Johnny’s is just another corner joint serving great food, not knowing any other way to do it.
Just another corner joint serving good food. Yeah, exactly right.
So many of them there …
I think one way you judge a food city is by the number of places that aren’t trying to be anything, but are something anyway. Lots of them in New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco. Very, very few of them in Vegas …
Thanks for this. Good stuff …
And you’re in the mix, too …
SLANTED DOOR from San Francisco – spectacular waterfront views with exciting food, uber efficient service, affordable prices – would be P-E-R-F-E-C-T for Georgetown waterfront or SW waterfront for that matter.
It’d be a good addition.
And it’d never happen. Those restaurants on the Georgetown waterfront are as good as they need to be.
BTW, I don’t know that I’d ever say the Slanted Door had “affordable prices.”
I wish Slopes BBQ was in this area. Yes, yes I can mail order it, but it’s not the same. Pulling up to a little suburban strip mall, opening the door to a down home spot of goodness, with pictures of celebrities, local stars and football players on the wall with the owners signed with thanks.
Even ordering at the counter is special there. Conversing with the clerks about the specials of the day, the old boards with new items written in cardboard taped on. The people there are genuinely nice and caring, they want to feed you the love that is their BBQ.
And the sides… I could make a meal here from sides alone, the baked beans, the cornbread, the greens, in typical Southern fashion, it is done right. Unlimited amounts of tea so sweet it will rot your teeth. It’s not just the food it’s the environment. It just can’t be replaced. Not only is BBQ on that level missing in DC, it’s the neighborhood watering holes that attract everyone from the students to the politicians to just you and me, and the table with all the kids over there. It’s a community that I would love to have close by.
Now, that’s putting us there and making a case.
I can almost taste the place.
On the one hand, I hate you for making me so ravenous right before lunch for something that I KNOW I WON’T BE ABLE TO EAT, but on the other hand — congratulations: You’re our winner.
Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with your address and I’ll get that book off to you today.
I’m so sorry, everyone, for continuing technical problems on this end — you can’t be more frustrated than Jessica and I are. There are a half-dozen questions that I answered that haven’t shown up, and appear to be lost in the ether …
We’ll do better, I hope, next time out.
Meantime — be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …