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
Re: LOOKING FOR A REHEARSAL DINNER SPACE …:
Following up on last week’s chat.
For the bride to be looking for a rehearsal dinner space from the Nov 13th chat, try Zaytinya. I organized a dinner there for about twenty people a few years ago and they had a number of fixed menu options ranging from about $35 per person to $65 per person for the most expensive option.
It’s not a private room but it’s a table sort of tucked into a corner to the right of the staircase, so it’s semi-private.
The problem with organizing a dinner for twenty is that most restaurants require a $2500 minimum (prior to tax and tip) for a group that size, so you’re looking at over $100 per person before tax and tip. And these are restaurants where dining a la carte wouldn’t cost $100 per person.
I think you’re going to run into that problem at Vidalia or Firefly (I have to organize a dinner for about twenty people every six months or so, and I’ve tried both and struck out at both before), but no harm in giving them a call. Zaytinya doesn’t have a minimum, as I recall, you just have to guarantee a headcount.
Thanks for following up …
And I appreciate the insight. And I hope the chatter does, too.
Good morning, everyone.
I’m eager to hear what and where you’ll be going for T-Day, and am especially eager to hear whether anyone will be dining out. And also dining out the night before — I love hitting a restaurant the night before Thanksgiving. No family angst, no worries over cleanup, the sense of anticipation building, building … but nothing actually to do about it right then …
Talk to me …
HELP! — NEED GIFT RECOS FOR THE HOLIDAYS …:
My dad has recently stated that for birthdays and holidays he would like to receive either really good coffee, liquor, or food.
My question is do you ever put together a gift giving guide focused around food and drinks? Are there any specialty food or drink stores that you would suggest?
I can always fall back on a gift card to a specific restaurant, but wanted to know if you had any good ideas, especially with the holidays quickly approaching.
The anxiety begins …
And it’s not even Thanksgiving.
You know, given that you’re in Virginia, I’d suggest you hit up the excellent M.E. Swings, in Alexandria, which roasts and grinds its own beans. I’m sure they could put together a nice package for you.
Also in Alexandria is the terrific Fern St. Gourmet, which carries good wines, cheeses, cured meats and gourmet goodies. It’s one-stop shopping, really, for your purposes.
Arrowine, in Arlington, is a great place to turn for wine and spirits if you want to limit your search just to liquor.
Hope that helps … Good luck.
TODD, I NEED YOU TO JUDGE …:
I had one of the worst dining experiences of my life this past weekend and had to get your input on the situation.
Myself and nine friends went to Charlottesville for a weekend of wine tasting. We graduated from UVA a few years ago, so it was the perfect way to get a group of friends together that don’t get to see each other as often as we would like. Of course, we wanted to have a nice dinner at one of the fantastic restaurants in the area while we were in town and settled on Orzo. We made the reservation over a month in advance.
Our party of ten showed up for our 8 pm reservation right on time. About 3 minutes after arrival, we were greeted (later determined to be by one of the owners) and told that our table wasn’t ready yet. So of course we said fine. He came back after another couples of minutes, and informed us that the reason we had to wait was because the drummer of the Dave Matthews Band is sitting at our table. Our thought, was okay and…? Strike One.
About 20 minutes goes by, still no word. We stopped the man that greeted us again and asked if he had any idea how much longer it would be. He replied that it shouldn’t be too long, the table had paid but was lingering, and that reservations don’t guarantee a time, only a table. (Hardly an apology, Strike Two).
By then we started considering leaving and made a few calls to try to find another restaurant to go to. We started making some calls and found a place that was happy to take us in.
We wanted to give them one last attempt at redemption, so asked to see the manager. He finally came over and we explained to him that we thought this was simply unacceptable. He replied that it hadn’t even been 30 minutes yet (we corrected him, it had been 35 minutes by this point), and that he was working on it. Not once during this entire experience did he offer an apology or appear to work on an alternative table set up for us, instead he acted rude and dismissive (Strike Three).
We did not expect him to ask the patrons to leave (whoever it might be), rather we just wanted a simple “I’m really sorry for the inconvenience” or maybe a “Please let me send an appetizer or drink over while you wait.” It was perfectly clear to use that he valued the current patron’s business more than ours and that because the patron was “famous”, we should be willing to wait as this was more than excusable. He really gave off the impression that he was doing us a favor. Needless to say, we left.
Todd, what’s the right way for a restaurant owner/manager to handle a situation like this? How long past a reservation time is it acceptable to expect to wait? Do you think this treatment had anything to do with our group looking young (possibly mistaken as students)?
Like I said, none of us expected him to ask the table to leave. We just would have liked to hear an apology for the delay and some indication that he valued our business and that it was worth our wait. I’ve had to wait on a reservation time before here in DC, but have always been profusely apologized to and/or had the manager pick up our bar tab while waiting or send over some appetizers. Were we being unfair?
Thanks for writing in with this …
And first off, no, I don’t think you were being unfair at all — assuming that your version of events is accurate in capturing mood and tone, etc. Which, of course, is impossible to know. But your sincerity and your depth of explanation lead me to think you’re not skewing things in your favor just to score points.
The thing that bugs me most is hearing from one of the owners that the drummer from the Dave Matthews Band was at your table. This is wrong on two counts.
First, and most obviously — who gives a shiitake if it’s a rock-band drummer or a plumber? Were you supposed to be impressed? Were you supposed to stand and ogle and thank management for the chance to bathe in his aura while going hungry? Disgusting. And suggestive of a star-struck operation that cares more about some than others. (All restaurants care more about some than others, it’s true; but the good ones don’t flaunt it.)
Second, what is this business of a reservation guaranteeing you a time but not a table? And the reality is, you were not guaranteed a time or a table.
I’d have been furious, and would not have thought twice about making a scene.
I hope we hear back from the owners of Orzo today or next week, and hear their side of the story.
LOOKING FOR NON-PINS & NEEDLES MICHELIN-STAR DINING IN NYC …:
My wife and I recently traveled to Napa and were able to eat at two of Thomas Keller’s restaurants, Ad Hoc and The French Laundry. While both were fantastic experiences, my wife actually preferred the loud, informal Ad Hoc experience to the quiet, “pins and needles” experience of The French Laundry.
Knowing that much, what would be your New York City suggestion (i.e. Michellin star rated while still fun and informal)?
I hear you.
50 NYC restaurants made the Michelin list this year, and among them were a fair number of 1-stars. Keep in mind that a Michelin one-star (the scale goes from 1 to 3) is tantamount to a 2 1/2-star or in some cases a 3-star restaurant in most dining guides, including, probably, ours.
Among those 1-stars, my picks would be: Torrisi, Sushi of Gari, Dovetail, Annisa and Casa Mono.
Just know that while you may not pay as much as the likes of Per Se or Le Bernardin or Eleven Madison Park, you’re still likely to be in for an expensive night. Casa Mono, the teeny-tiny tapas joint from Mario Batali — where, unless you are an anorexic model, you will have to angle and wedge yourself into your seat — can run you $160 for two for tapas and drinks, easy.
But all these are fun places and you will eat very, very well.
HELP! — I NEED A TURKEY, PRONTO …:
I would like to order a Thanksgiving for one. Are any grocery stores or restaurants still taking orders, or is it too late?
I live on the Hill and would need a metro accessible, and preferably close, pick-up location.
Try calling Three Little Pigs Charcuterie & Salumi, in Columbia Heights.
Here they are on the web: theelittlepigsdc.com
THOUGHTS ON SUNA, ON CAPITOL HILL?:
Any inside word on the new restaurant Suna? will it be like Komi or something unique?
Anna Spiegel, who reports on food and restaurant culture for the web, got an inside tour of the kitchen. You can read that account here: https://www.washingtonian.com/blogs/bestbites/food-restaurant-news/the-very-first-photo-tour-of-sunas-hush-hush-capitol-hill-location-photos-and-menu.php
I think comparisons to Komi at this point are not just premature. Komi took years to become the Komi of today; it evolved from a place that was a low-key but sophisticated bistro serving small plates and pizzas to a very ambitious and exacting four-star restaurant that some, including me, consider the best in the city.
I think Suna means to be its own place, and will be its own place — and I say that regardless of whether it ends up being good or bad.
I do think that starting from scratch without a big name in the kitchen and banking everything on two different tasting menus and no a la carte is unusually audacious. Komi worked up to that. Eola did as well.
Suna is coming right out of the gate with an approach that is designed to seize a foodie’s lusting attention and demonstrate its high culinary seriousness. It is an approach, however, that tends to alienate the average diner. That means that the place is, essentially, flying without a net. That’s tremendously exciting. All or nothing. Let’s hope they can pull it off.
LOOKING FOR NON-PINS & NEEDLES MICHELIN-STAR DINING IN NYC …:
WD-50 would be a great dining experience in Manhattan and not a pins and needle type of place.
Yes, and among that group I listed, easily the most free-wheeling and weird and creative.
Thanks for chiming in …
And people! — I want to know where you’re going for the holiday, and what you’ll be eating. Any special dishes you always have at the table? What are they? Any quick recipes to share?
My own Thanksgiving, by the way, is in danger of being wiped out. My mom is recovering from spine surgery, one sister-in-law is sick, the other will not drive without her, a nephew who had thought he and his wife were going to be able to make are not going to be able to make it.
Not sure which way we’ll go at this point, but we’re thinking seriously of going out to a restaurant this year …
Re: ORZO AND THE ROCK-BAND DRUMMER …:
One of the problems with Orzo is that it really doesn’t have much room for a big party. I think there may be only one table that could accommodate a group of that size.
I have been stuck in that situation at other small restaurants in this area. I think in that situation managers/hostesses should really be up front about the fact that there is only one table to accommodate a group of that size when the reservation is made so they can’t guarantee a time, OR have a more firm policy about tables being asked to move to the bar after a reasonable time for eating.
Really a shame to have that kind of service in a place that has some interesting food. I wonder where the chatter ended up, I am in C-ville every couple months and always like to know what is still doing good and what has dropped off.
I agree, it’s a shame. You hate to hear something like this about a good place.
And I understand that Matthews is a local celeb in C-ville. But that kind of big-footing is completely off-putting.
Personally, I might’ve put up with a fifteen-minute wait if I hadn’t been told that. Beyond 15 minutes with a reservation and without a lot of apologizing is the opposite of hospitality, and at that point I would expect some hearty comping to be done if I don’t just up and leave.
GUY FIERI & THE REVIEW …:
Everybody’s been talking about and emailing me about it, even people who aren’t foodies like me and my husband, and I just wanted to see what you thought of the Pete Wells review.
Thanks, and loved your review of Izakaya Seki. So vivid and alive.
I knew this had crossed-over when my brothers’ wife — who is not only not a foodie, but scorns paying big money for food as hopelessly bourgeois — sent me an email all in questions asking if I’d read it.
I had many reactions to it.
The first time I read it, I actually put it down and didn’t finish it — I had “gotten” it. It struck me as too long for a gimmick column.
I eventually finished, and then read it again. My favorite line: “Why does the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?”
What I find funny in a different sense, and not a little bothersome, is that this kind of take-down is rarely if ever attempted in this country with restaurants that are truly deserving of this kind of scorn. The best a restaurant like that can hope to earn from the Times is 2 stars. That’s at best; more likely a 1 1/2 if everything is running perfectly. In other words, a good version of the place would have netted a 1-star review. Is that a place you pull out the carving knife for? A place that ought to have garnered a 1 gets a 0.
What about a place with a big name chef and restaurateur and designer that aims for 4 and oozes pretension from every pore and is the very definition of passionless mediocrity — and ends up with a 1/2. Or a 1. Seems to me that’s much more deserving, especially when you consider that that place is much more likely to be on the radar of a Times reader and regular restaurant-goer.
Is Guy Fieri fair game because he is not embraced by the food establishment like Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert and Wolfgang Puck? Because his show is about dives and scruffy places and therefore not a real show about real food?
I don’t say this to defend Fieri. He is obviously a creation of TV and a cartoon. But I think it’s interesting that of all the food world people to be singled out for abuse in the last couple of years, it’s Fieri and Paula Deen. And what do they have in common? They celebrate trash food. They are the very essence of what the upper middle-class is not — or, I should say: the very essence of what the upper middle-class does not want to be.
The going after Fieri is of a piece with a lot of food world argumentation. If real change of the system is desired, you don’t talk to other foodies; you change fast food and the Applebees of the world. You change the grocery stores. You speak uncondescendingly to people where they shop and work and live and buy. You work to make things easier, not more exclusive.
Re: SUNA …:
I totally agree with your assessment of Suna (and others) starting out as tasting only.
We are neighbors and are so eager to try the spot, but probably won’t for awhile bc I dont want to invest in $50/person menu at a brand new spot.
I noticed precious little chatter about the place online, leading me to believe others are waiting it out as well. Risky way to start.
Thanks for chiming in on this …
I think especially because Johnny Spero, the chef, is not a name, and because there is no other name attached to the venture.
Yes, Spero cooked at Komi, and also at Town House, in Chilhowie, Va., but this kind of knowledge is not known by most diners — casual diners, I mean, not foodies — and, also, not of real worth to them, either. It is not a track record. It hints at promise. But that promise has to be made good on.
I hope the place succeeds. It’s an exciting and interesting project. And taking these kinds of risks makes it even more so.
HUNGRY FOR ‘CUE …:
I was down in the south last weekend and had incredible barbecue. Great ribs and fantastic brisket. While our area does have some good joints (Hill Country and Rocklands come to mind), nothing really seems to equal what can be found in the south.
What’s your take on where to find the best in the area? I’m willing to drive a bit if it’s worth it
I hesitate to use the word “best” in connection with area barbecue because it raises expectations too high. This isn’t a hotbed of ‘cue.
And generally, yes, you have to hit the road.
I do love the “moist” brisket at Hill Country, in Penn Quarter — that’s code word for “fatty,” by the way. Easily the best thing there. I also like the sausages from that ‘cue madhouse, Lockhart, Texas.
I, along with its many fans, am eagerly awaiting the return of KBQ, late of Bowie, which owner Kerry Britt will be re-booting in the city. (I know where, but have told Britt I won’t release that info until everything’s official.)
Some places worth hitting the road for:
— Black Hog BBQ, in Frederick. It’s also going to be opening a Falls Church location this Spring.
— Chubby’s, in Emmittsburg, hard by the Pennsylvania border.
— Absolute BBQ, in Manassas.
— Red, Hot and Blue (Laurel location only).
Re: ORZO AND THE ROCK-BAND DRUMMER: HOSS WEIGHS IN …:
Dave Matthews Band is local royalty is Charlottesville. But who cares if I would have been the patron myself and next biggest guy in the group would ahve gone to head and the way back would ahve walked by the table and would have said something like hi I am the chapter prez of the Pagans Motorcycle Club and we have reservation for 8pm dude and your occupying our table. Suggest you get to stepping. Or since some of friends are retired SEALS we would have asked the drummer and his party to step outside. Come on a second rate rock and roll band weenie! No contest.
When I said it was worth making a scene over, I didn’t mean confronting the drummer. He’s not the problem. The problem is starry-eyed management.
Re: TURKEY …:
Little pigs is out of turkey. How about Popeyes? I never had it but I heard coworkers talking about it.
Popeye’s, the fast food joint. Yeah, they sell deep-fried birds. I think they’re $42.
Never had one, can’t say. But I can almost guarantee you that those turkeys will have been brined within an inch of their lives — pumped full of so much salt and sugar that they will have been rendered, effectively, into fast food.
If you do pick one up, I’d love to hear how it was.
STICKER SHOCK AT THE NEW DGS, OFF DUPONT …:
I was anxiously awaiting the opening of DGS in Dupont, but seeing their prices and menu gave me sticker shock.
I guess that’s what the market will bear, and I get that good deli (see: Second Ave. Deli) is expensive, but $5 for pickles? Almost $20 for a deli sandwich at lunch?
Do you think DGS will last? Can we ever get a real, REASONABLY-PRICED dei in the district?
No, I don’t. Many, many restaurateurs have told me that that model cannot work in this city.
What DGS is doing is something different — essentially, a Jewish restaurant, with cocktails and a wine list. And it’s doing a lot of things from scratch a la Mile End in Brooklyn and Wise Sons in San Francisco — making its own pastrami, its own pickles, etc. Artisanality costs.
The hope is that we, the diner, see the payoff of not going the route of getting meats from the mass suppliers — that the flavor (tam, in Yiddish) is there; that the difference is worth it.
But I hear you. Twenty bucks a sandwich is a LOT. It’s got to be stunning at that price, the real deal.
This is, remember, a city of sticker shock when it comes to restaurants with some ambition. The new Woodward Table, the latest venture from Jeff Buben of Bistro Bis and Vidalia, is charging $8 for a side of fries.
And remember, also, that this kind of thing has been around in this city for a long, long time — it’s just that in this hypercasual era those upcharges are not for things like brandade … things that take time and require years of training. They for fries … things you can get at any roadside dive.
TURKEY HELP …:
T-day birds, while not super convenient, it is Metro accessible Willow was still taking holiday orders. We had one from Whole Foods that was good one year. RIS was taking orders too, but don’t know if that deadline passed.
Thanks for passing this on …
Re: DGS …:
My husband and I ate at DGS on Sunday night and had a great time.
First, I’m not sure how the most expensive sandwich, at $13, is, “nearly $20.” And the $5 pickle tray was more than enough for the two of us and a hell of a better deal than the delicious but twee and small pickle platter at District Kitchen. Likewise, the $5 side of fries was more than enough for two.
No, DGS isn’t cheap, not by a long shot. But it’s not looking to be a bargain, and it’s not looking to do deli food that my grandmother would recognize. She’d be totally put off by the preserved lemon, olives, and harissa in the kasha varnishkas, but we thought the Moroccan take on that eastern european classic was delicious.
As for the other food we had, the my husband was very pleased with his pastrami sandwich, and I loved the house-smoked pastrami salmon sandwich. The salmon was rich and supple, with a great, clean flavor. And the chocolate babka bread pudding with salted caramel ice cream is an absolute delight.
Do I think it will last? No clue. But I think it’s achieving what it set out to do.
Thanks for that excellent dispatch.
Great to hear; let’s hope DGS keeps it up.
Doing a deli in the Northeast is like doing a BBQ place in the South; it invites criticism. It’s risky. Everyone’s got an opinion, it seems. And everyone has expectations, however misfounded.
TURKEY HELP, CONT. …:
To the person looking for a turkey dinner (it sounded like that was the quest), try calling Harris Teeter. They have pre-made turkey dinners. I don’t know how good they are or what the deadline is for ordering, but it might be worth a shot.
And anything to save a fellow chatter from a Popeye’s Thanksgiving, right? ; )
GUY FIERI AND THE REVIEW, CONT. …:
You mean you don’t like taking a drive through flavortown? 😉 Him and Paula are both cartoons. I wish food network had a real viable comeptitor, would help with their poor programming
“Welcome to Flavortown” is pretty hilarious. It really doesn’t need amplification.
And as for cartoons — all of these people are cartoons. Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Michael Simon, etc. They’re basically their shtick.
But to return to the Fieri thing … the food world today rests on a very strong sense of us vs. them. There is a constant creation and re-creation of this division, and you see that in Slow Food and in the important food magazines and in the talk of many of the most prominent figures in this world, Pollan, Waters, etc.
It’s interesting to see who falls into the us and who falls into the them. I was at a gathering earlier this year and talking about this divide, and how a lot of what food world insiders are working toward to bring about change is not bringing about change where most people need it. And this man said: “It’s all about education. It all comes down to education. If we can just educate them to understood why that farmers’ tomato is better … “
I’m taking off. Lunch time.
Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone. Want to hear all the details next week.
Who knows what we’ll end up doing, but we’ll make the best of it I’m sure … Thanks for the nice emails you all sent expressing concern. I appreciate it. No worries …
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]