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. Or write to him: firstname.lastname@example.org
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
* 8407 Kitchen + Bar, Silver Spring
Chef Pedro Matomoros’s lamb bolognese has become one of the signature dishes of the area, the burger has moved into the first rank, and desserts under vet pastry chef Rita Garruba have never been better. But if you have never made the acquaintance of this lowkey suburban sophisticate, go for brunch. Homemade beignets with sweetened creme fraiche are gratis, and the rest of the meal follows in that spirit of abundance and generosity. I can’t remember the last time I had a better plate of restaurant pancakes — all soft, fluffy insides and crisp edges, with lots of big, ripe blueberries that somehow managed not to have suppurated. They come with a local maple syrup so dark and rich and smooth you want to douse everything on the table with it. And the distinguishing touches don’t stop there. Those cubes of corned beef in the well-seasoned hash with poached eggs? Homemade. So is the smoked salmon. Wash it all down with a drink billed as a grown-up mojito that actually tastes like a cross between a mojito and a Negroni and delivers a gentle, antidotal bite.
* Family Meal, Frederick
I have eaten a lot of great fried chicken across this great land — I’m talking about bang-your-fist-on-the-table great, now — and the tender, crunchy, pickle-brined bird at this stylized Frederick diner, the brainchild of chef Bryan Voltaggio, has already earned its way into that esteemed class. It’s worth driving the hour-plus north just for a taste, easy. The good news is, this isn’t some one-hit wonder. There’s also a fabulous basket of “pot pie fritters” — crunchy little salt-crusted croquettes that give way to a lush gravy studded with peas and bits of chicken — some lovingly treated vegetable sides, a good BLT made with pork belly, and an “adult” mint chocolate chip milkshake garnished with toasted marshmallow and spiked with Buffalo Trace. That’s right — a higher-quality bourbon for a milkshake than many restaurants bother to use for a mixed drink.
H and Pizza, DC
DIY, conveyor-belt, personal-pan pizza sounds like one of those slick, market-tested concepts that’s more about novelty than deliciousness. But this cramped, often-thronged H St. newcomer is a surprise—it’s novel and delicious (and cheap and fun). The oblong crusts (there’s a choice of three doughs, including multi-grain and whole wheat) are thin and crunchy, and if you opt for the tomato sauce (options there, too) you’ll be reminded of the sweet zestiness of a by-the-slice New York pie. I’d urge you to sublimate your need to DIY (not the easiest thing when the pie assemblers behind the counter are willing to pile on as many toppings as you want) and stick to their preset combinations — a simple meatball and cheese, say, or a veggie-heavy version loaded up with eggplant, mushrooms, peppers and a cracked egg. The dessert pizza—nutella, strawberries, dollops of mascarpone and a sprinkling of almonds—is superior to nearly every attempt of this kind I’ve had.
Cavo’s Cantina, Rockville
Tex-Mex is among the cuisines this area has never really done very well, and the recent spate of restaurants devoted to pumping out authentic regional Mexican cooking is only likely to make it more of an afterthought. What this low-lit, L-shaped cantina reminds us, is that done well, few meals are as festive or as satisfying. Cavo’s won’t wow you, but, aside from some service lapses, it gets almost all of the important things right—thin, crispy chips and homemade salsa; strong margaritas; a tasty tortilla soup; good fajitas; excellent chicken enchiladas. There are even a number of desserts, including the creamy-crispy cajeta, that are much better than they need to be.
Izakaya Seki, DC
Arguably the most exciting restaurant to debut this year. Hiroshi Seki and his daughter, Cizuka Seki, have fashioned a spare, intimate izakaya from a former barber shop on V St. It’s a no-frills setting that suggests a gallery and serves as an ideal backdrop for beautifully simple dishes that all but command you to slow down and focus. Hop a seat at the wraparound counter that consumes the entirety of downstairs to watch Seki, a sushi master with 50 years experience, work with grace, speed, economy and calm as he executes his repertoire with a small team of cooks: thick slices of veal-tender beef tongue with a painting of mustard-miso sauce; succulent filets of grilled mero, the Japanese term for Chilean sea bass; springy soba noodles with flakes of nori and tempura; and some of the most exquisite cuts of aji (horse mackerel) and yellowtail you’ll find.
Blue Duck Tavern, DC
On my Twitter feed a couple of months ago, I teased the news that made a “massive and exciting leap,” then sat back and watched the guesses pour in. No one came up with the right place, and to be honest, if I hadn’t been there to enjoy it, I would never have guessed, either. Sebastien Archambault is a major talent, and without overhauling the menu or concept has given a restaurant that had slid dangerously close to irrelevance in the past year or so the kiss of life.
Vin 909 Winecafe, Annapolis
I feasted on a couple of superlative pizzas not long ago, and they didn’t come from 2 Amys, Pete’s New Haven Style Pizza, Pupatella, Moroni & Brother’s, Comet, Orso, Haven Pizzeria, Graffiato or Menomale. They came from the kitchen at this always-swarmed, no-reservations wine bar, housed in a restored craftsman bungalow just over the bridge from Annapolis in tiny Eastport. The key players are Alex Manfredonia, who works the front of the (tiny) house, and Justin Moore; the pair met working at a restaurant in San Francisco, and headed east to take over the space previously occupied by Wild Orchid Cafe. Moore and his team produce a crust that’s close to perfect—thin, marvelously hillocked, chewy where it needs to be and crispy everywhere else, and hit with just enough salt. The Margherita is more heavily dressed than is usual, but it’s excellent, and so is an unlikely concoction of baked beans, Tillamook cheese, fontina and coleslaw. Don’t miss the spin on a lobster roll, with creamy, chive-flecked crab salad tucked between two griddled squares of bread; there’s a cup of seafood bisque for dunking.
El Chucho Cocina Superior, DC
When it’s on, an exhilarating tour through the intricate, layered flavors of regional Mexican cooking, backed by a long list of cocktails, margaritas, sipping tequilas and mezcals. Early hits: a smoky grilled corn cob impaled on a skewer, spritzed with lime, rolled in grated cheese and dusted with queso fresco; the tongue-shaped chips known as huaraches, topped with crumbled queso fresco and pickled onions and served with a sublime dark mole; a torta, or sub, that impersonates a Manwich and a Chicago beef sandwich all at once—chopped adobo pork dredged in a spicy Arbol chili sauce, garnished with black beans, onions, avocado and chihuahua cheese and then submerged in that same sauce again before serving (forgo the accompanying plastic gloves and give in to the sloppy lusciousness).
You’d never find it if you weren’t looking for it. Situated in the fascinating industrial sector of Rockville, amid a slew of old warehouses and specialty supply stores, this cozy Korean mom ‘n’ pop is about as hidden as hidden gems get. The cooking is vivid and punchy—great bibimbap, served several ways, along with a parade of soups, noodle dishes and stir frys. Order a soju to wash it all down; the mango and watermelon are fresh and gently sweet, a good counterpart to the garlicky intensity of the food.
Maple Avenue, Vienna
Some diners might be skeptical of splurging for $20 + entrees in a tiny, repurposed diner where the 8 tables are wedged together so closely the room can feel like one big dinner party when the drinks are flowing. Others might be skeptical of the menu, which bends in a dozen different directions, implying a kitchen with a scattered, be-everything-to-everyone vision— which is to say, no vision at all. But this is a surprisingly focused restaurant —and a surprisingly rewarding one, too, a place that feels like a personal statement, backed by an amiable staff that clearly aims to send you away smiling. The chef and owner, Tim Ma, does his part, too. He makes a mean shrimp and grits, and his beef cheek sandwich with beer battered fries is one of the best simple plates around. Don’t miss the bread pudding.
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.
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, subtly modish restaurant is turning out uncommonly clean-tasting versions of standard Hong Kong-style fare, including shrimp dumpling soup, shrimp with walnuts, and soyed chicken—all spectacular. 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
Two Questions, One Professional, One Personal:
Does your mother share her Peach Kugel recipe? It sounds great.
Odd personal question: Is your wife E— Kliman?
I can ask her, sure.
It’s not HER recipe, technically speaking; she saw it in a newspaper many years ago, in a piece about Southern Jewish traditions. It didn’t sound all that great when she first presented it — kugel with peaches? But let me tell you, it’s the best kugel I think I’ve ever had. I’m not much of a kugel eater. It’s often awful.
This one’s like dessert. Stay tuned for the recipe.
As for the personal question — I’ve taken the liberty of modifying what you asked, but yes, that’s her, and I’ll let her know you wrote in today, Robin. I remember she taught your daughter …
Honeymooning — and Cooking? — in Italy or France:
My fiance and I are planning our honeymoon for next year and would love to incorporate cooking classes in Italy or France (or really any other destination that you think might be worthwhile), but don’t know where to find classes that are more authentic and less “touristy.”
Do you have any suggestions of programs that incorporate cooking into a vacation? Thanks so much.
Sorry, I don’t.
But who knows, maybe there’re some folks on here who do.
Looking for a Lower Noise, Nicer Restaurant …:
I need to plan a work dinner for about 10 people. The dinner will include a speaker, so hearing is a must.
We are in the Foggy Bottom area, but willing to travel to Logan, Dupont, Georgetown, Metro Center, Chinatown.
Any suggestions for lower noise, nicer restaurants?
I’ve got the perfect place for you.
It’s in the West End, adjacent to Foggy Bottom, there’re no hard surfaces, the room isn’t aswarm with twenty-year-olds, alt-rock doesn’t blare from a sound system, and the restaurant is virtually trend-free. “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” a friend of mine said once when we walked through the door.
It’s true. Ris is a throwback, and a smart one. White tablecloths, muted lighting, soft music, and a menu full of the kind of simple, thoughtfully prepared dishes that going out to a fine American restaurant used to mean.
Drop me a note and let me know how it turns out …
Menus and Mediocrity …:
In your job, do you dread ordering a dish that you anticipate will be mediocre–just because so many other restaurants do a poor job with it?
For example, many restaurants have caesar salad on their menu but very few make a good one. I’m guessing that only a few stick out in your mind as being very good. The rest are mediocre at best. In my opinion, tiramisu is another dish that is usually mediocre.
What other dishes do you see on many menus that are mostly mediocre across the board? I would also add buffalo wings to the list.
Here’s the thing, though. Buffalo Wings don’t have to be great.
I ate a plate of ‘em on Sunday while catching the end of the [Washington football team]’s game at a bar.
They weren’t anything special, and a good chef, working his craft, could improve upon them if he wanted. But why? I loved ‘em as they were.
And actually, “improving upon them” is a trap that many chefs fall into. America Eats Tavern offered an “improved-upon” wings plate. It was a disaster, though the sauce was homemade and the chicken was higher-quality than that of most bars.
You’re so right about Caesar salad. And about tiramisu. They’re kind of the definition of “lowered-expectation dishes.” Right? You see them on the menu, and even if you pull the trigger and order them, you’re shocked when they’re better than decent.
When I think of mediocrity in the area, I don’t just think of dishes — I think of a cuisine. Ironically, the cuisine that we associate with Caesar salads and tiramisu. Italian food. Most Italian food in this area is simply not worth the money or the calories. Unless you’re paying top dollar. Though even then that’s no guarantee.
I’ll be interested in hearing some other nominees for truly mediocre menu items … Who’s got one?
Cooking in Italy and France, cont. …:
Re: Cooking in Italy, in Cortona try: Alessandra Federici’s Cucina Cooking School.
Thanks for the tip.
Why do you like this one in particular? Have you attended it?
Opening, Closing, Staying, Enduring …:
You always hear about restaurants opening and shuttering in a flash in NYC or LA. I know we’ve had our fair amount of high profile openings and subsequent closings (e.g. Ba Bay or Galileo III), but I also think Washingtonians hold on to their restaurants more.
Maybe because we’re just so darn excited to have something new, anything that will give us a mention from some illustrious out-of-towner, but I’m wondering, as an insider, do you have any information about the likelihood of restaurant success in DC? I know it depends on a million factors, but it seems like we’ve supported the continued success of enough new age or hipster-run Mexican joints to make me think that it’s got to be harder to fail here than it is elsewhere.
PS: for the honeymooners in France, it’s not a cooking class, but if you’re in Paris, check out Paris by Mouth’s walking tours. They do a great job of getting to the nitty gritty of good food.
You realize, I hope, that you just made Washington, D.C., sound like Cincinnati.
And I know I have been critical of aspects of the scene over the years, but let’s not let our starry bi-coastal gaze obscure reality.
(LA, by the way, is not a better restaurant town, and, like DC, its interest and excitement has as much to do with its “ethnic” scene as anything generated by name chefs and restaurateurs.)
I actually think a lot of things have failed here in the past few years.
And there is much more churn than there ever has been. Food trucks, gas station restaurants, supper clubs both legit and underground, designer taquerias, izakayas, Hipster Farmhouse spots …
The variety and the pace at which places open — these are new things, and welcome things.
Mediocrity and Menus, cont. …:
Mediocre items — unfortunately, seared tuna.
I recall you wrote an article a few years ago about diminishing quality stocks, and I have indeed noticed that even at otherwise good restaurants the tuna is usually disappointing. I rarely order it anymore.
I don’t blame you. I don’t either when I’m on my own dime.
And when I’m visiting a sushi restaurant — either a new place, or a place I’m checking in on again — I don’t order tuna until late in the meal.
Why? Because when I place my order, I am mindful of giving every place I visit the best chance possible to succeed. That goes for every place, by the way, and not just sushi restaurants. I try, that first time, to pick the dishes that I think will show that restaurant off to full advantage. I’m hoping for a great first impression.
But back to tuna for a second.
The best tuna I’ve had recently — really, the only tuna I’ve had in a long while that’s even worth mentioning — is the sashimi appetizer at Izakaya Seki.
But then again, what isn’t good at Seki? I’ve been four times and can only count two dishes that didn’t do it for me. I’m still thinking about a special he had in the last time I was there. Scallop, broiled in its large shell, and served with all its innards intact. Splashed with what I’m guessing to be a sauce of soy, mirin, ginger, and sesame, with a small dollop of mayo. That, and a cold glass of sake, and I could’ve gone home happy.
Speaking of sushi … My wife just walked in the door, having come home from running errands, and reports that her crown broke off while eating a tray of sushi.
Why do I mention that?
Because I had a crown break off, a month ago, while eating sushi.
Methinks we need to stay away from the stuff for a while — or eat on one side of our mouths …
Cooking in Italy and France, cont.:
Chef Domenico of Assaggi plans trips to Italy for groups. I’d consider contacting him.
Thank you, anonymous restaurant publicist! ; )
Shirlington Restaurant Week Recs?:
Any thoughts/recommendations on Shirlington restaurant week, October 8 – 14?
Just wondering where I’ll get the biggest bang for my buck.
I want to start by saying that I really like that Shirlington does this.
And I also really like the way it has priced this promotion: $15 for lunch, $25 for dinner.
Of the participating restaurants, I’m probably keenest on Samuel Beckett’s Irish Gastro Pub, which I enjoyed the last time I was in.
Better than the usual pub grub, and none of the vivacious despair of its namesake.
Still waiting for the “I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On” Burger …
Cooking in Italy and France, cont. …:
You’ll want to focus your search on wine regions. Not only are they great vacation spots but they go hand in hand with great food.
We’ve been to both Tuscany and Bordeaux this year and both areas offered a number of cooking classes at local restaurants, b&bs or even some chateaux.
Lucky, lucky you …
Good tips. Thanks for chiming in …
Mediocrity and Menus, cont. …:
Mediocre menu item: Shrimp and lobster rolls.
Few people do them really well, many are bland, or just well not great. I can think of so many, but don’t want to name names, there are a couple places that do them really well (even very simply, but well) and it makes the rest even worse. I think shrimp rolls in particular.
So true …
Thanks for chiming in …
And somehow this reminds me that BLTs really belong on this list.
When was the last time anyone out there had a great one?
It ought to be so simple. It’s the easiest sandwich in the world to make. We all make great ones at home, right? But go to a restaurant and order one, and it’s screwed up every time.
It doesn’t need pork belly. It needs regular bacon, cooked crisp. It doesn’t need “improved-upon” bread. It needs simple bread — thin, toasted. (So many places use sourdough, thinking it’s better. Or a focaccia bread. And that sourdough or focaccia has been jazzed up with tarragon or, worse, rosemary. Why? How many dishes are actually helped by the addition of rosemary. Chicken and what else?)
Give me a great tomato and make the mayo from scratch. The latter most of us don’t have time for, and the former is something that a restaurant with good sourcing ought to be able to procure.
Our daughter is a recent graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine, a cook at Cashions, and writes about DC food at her DC Food Rag blog. We want to take her out for a traditional (sort of) Thanksgiving dinner. Where should we go?
She lives in Adams Morgan, but location doesn’t matter and we are willing to spend the bucks for a great meal and experience. The last time we were in DC we went to Citronelle, which was excellent.
And now Citronelle is on ice, having been temporarily shut down because of flooding.
I spoke last week with Jean-Jacques Retourne, the maitre d’, and he said that there was still no word on a date for reopening and that he was getting antsy; he said hoped he would not have to return to LA to find work.
Meantime — and this is a comparatively minor change, given all the upheaval, but likely to be a jarring sight for all those diners who watched him work the floor for years: Retourne has shaved off his moustache …
Now, to the question at hand …
Most restaurants have yet to announce whether they will be open and serving Thanksgiving dinner — stay tuned for that — but Adour, Blue Duck, Bourbon Steak and Vidalia all did T-Day specials last year, and I would imagine a cook would benefit from (and enjoy) seeing an operation at the highest levels on a big and busy day like that.
Mediocrity and Menus, cont. …:
Mediocrity on menus?
The lone vegetarian item at oh-so-many places. Sigh.
To be fair, though, DC is a great city for a vegetarian who loves good cooking.
That’s my impression, too.
But there are still too many good places where it feels like tokenism.
Re: Bastille, in Old Town Alexandria …:
My husband and I are going to Bastille on Sunday to celebrate our 7th wedding anniversary. Any advice?
We have heard great things about it from some people, but have never been there!
This is classic bistro cooking: mussels in white wine, duck confit, steak frites. There are few surprises — the shrimp beignets, which have been there from the start — but that’s not a bad thing. It’s actually, in this case, a good thing. There’s a sturdy dependability about the place. You’re going to dine well, and comfortably. Save room for dessert — there’s a great tart tatin and creme caramel.
The menu has changed quite a bit since Bastille opened, in 2006, and prices have edged higher and higher. Many of the a la carte entrees are now in the mid to high 20s. The bargain option is to go prix fixe at dinner — $29 for two courses, or $39 for three courses.
I’ll be interested in hearing how your meal turned out. Come back on and drop us a note, ok?
And happy anniversary!
Re: rosemary …:
Rack of lamb and roasted fingerling potatoes are greatly enhanced by rosemary.
Yes, of course — how could I have forgotten those?
But that’s it, that’s the list: chicken, rack of lamb, roasted fingerlings.
Rosemary on anything else, and it’s like eating a forest.
Re: A Birthday Celebration in D.C. Proper …:
I’d love your advice on where to have a birthday celebration for my father-in-law in the District.
It would be for about 10 people, with a wide range of ages (think 3 to 85) and palates. We’d like a private or semi-private space in a midrange restaurant.
My initial thoughts are Ris, Bibiana, and Carmine’s. Any thoughts you have would be immensely appreciated!
Those are good initial thoughts.
Very good, actually.
I don’t know the group, but I know that, in general, the food itself is not the main thing for most people and that this is even more the case for groups, somehow.
If it were my party, I would break the places down according to these lines: Carmine’s = the most fun; Bibiana = the most sophisticated; Ris = the most comfortable and safest.
And I would probably, for that reason, wind up taking everyone to Ris.
If you end up at any of these, I’ll be interested in hearing how it turns out.
Enjoy the time with your family …
But Seriously, Back to My Question …:
Ouch, I would never compare DC to Cincinnati. I know that there are some amazing and exciting places to eat here. And I was being sarcastic about the “illustrious out-of-towner.” Although I know there are some blogs out there that document every remark made about a DC restaurant by a NY critic.
But seriously, back to my question, what makes a highly-anticipated restaurant shutter in this city? What’s unique about our city that fights the buzz? Was it that Buddha Room was in an awkward location? Was it that Galileo III had too many internal problems? I know I meant to make it to Ba Bay, but never did, so I suppose I could just turn the question around on myself.
Look, restaurants close for a variety of reasons, just as they do anywhere else.
A chef leaves and the place falls off and dies. The location stinks. The owners don’t understand what their audience wanted. Bad cooking. Bad service. Bad ambiance. A bad business model. Hubris. The exact opposite of hubris. Spending too much on food. Spending too little on food. No reviews or bad ones.
I’m either not getting what you’re getting at, or I am, and the premise just feels wrong to me.
DC may be insulated to a great degree from economic hardship, as experts say, but I really don’t see a parallel in the restaurant world.
By the way, I read an interesting and sickening statistic recently: DC has the greatest income disparity of any place in the country.
And on that cheery note …
Thanks, everyone, for spending part of your day with me. And thanks for the questions and the tips and the musings I appreciate it, all of it …
Next week I’ll be giving away tickets to a forthcoming production at Round House Theatre in Bethesda — “I Love to Eat,” a play about the life and times of James Beard, starring my friend Nick Olcott.
Stay tuned …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11.[missing you, TEK … ]