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: email@example.com
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.
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.
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.
FOLLOWING UP FROM LAST WEEK: CULINARY DIVERSITY IN BETHESDA …:
I misspoke, and you are absolutely right. Bethesda does have solid culinary diversity, just not the quality I wish it had.
They have a bit of everything, but most of it is very ordinary (I do like the Thai, Indian, Creole and Spanish offerings). I just expect more.
I expect more, too.
Though maybe my assumptions are wrong. I assume that an area with “population-density” — the big buzzword and sometimes code-word from developers — and affluence and proximity to Metro and cultural centers ought to have a more dynamic scene.
But Bethesda doesn’t change much, and its restaurants — its many, many restaurants — are mediocre or worse.
I have talked to a number of restaurateurs in Bethesda about this, and several have told me that the one thing that their audiences seem to insist upon is good, attentive service. About food, apparently, they are willing to abide the middlin’.
HELP! — NEED A PLACE TO TAKE IN-LAWS …:
Hi Todd –
Thanks for your chats – your reviews and recommendations have led us to some great food in the past.
My in-laws are visiting and we’ll likely eat out a few times. I need some suggestions because the places nearby that we normally go to (Ethiopian, Indian, Korean, taquerias) are definitely out in this case. They did like Samantha’s, Pasta Plus, and Joe’s Noodle House (their broad menu helps).
I thought we might try either the new Little Ricky’s or Cuba de Ayer? There is plenty of good pizza where they live (Portland, OR) or else we’d go to Menomale. Any thoughts?
On a different note, have you been to El Comalito or Spice 6 in Hyattsville? Both are delicious. Thanks!
Yes, been to both — and have visited Spice 6 quite a bit.
I think it’s one of the best of the new breed of Chipotlized restaurants: start with a bowl of rice, lettuce or get a piece of bread (naan, lavash, tortilla), add meats and/or veggies, and move on down the line to accessorize the thing with various sauces and garnishes. What makes Spice 6 good is the depth and punch of its curries and chutneys; I wouldn’t have expected that of what is, essentially, a fast-food operation.
By the way: We currently have several Indotles (Spice 6 is the best of the bunch), a few Grecotles (outlets of Cava Mezze Grill), and a Malayotle (Shophouse).
As for a pick for dinner … I’d take them to Cuba de Ayer, if you were already mulling that possibility. I think it’s a wonderful place. Great black beans and oiled rice. I like the lechon and picadillo (the latter has one of the softest textures I’ve seen). Just stay away from the lure of the mixed drinks; they’re weak and not cheap.
Another idea, if you don’t mind a drive and/or the weather’s decent — take them to Vin 909 in Annapolis. I think it’s putting out the best pizzas in the area right now. And it’s a charming space: a restored bungalow with an immaculately kept garden out front. It does get crowded quickly, though, and the waits can be long on weekends.
Good luck, and let me know what you end up deciding on …
Re: DGS Delicatessen, in Dupont …:
Although I think the place is a gem, I am disappointed that DGS deli will not do a half-corned beef and half pastrami sandwich.
A sandwich entirely of pastrami tends to be too salty, which is definitley the case at DGS, even though it is otherwise delicious. What are your thoughts?
Sorry, I can’t help myself — this is what you’re disappointed in?
A place that won’t make you a sandwich of both pastrami and corned beef?
We have just seen the arrival of the first good deli food in the DC area in … maybe ever? — and you’re complaining that it’s missing a sandwich option?
Do I think the place should see fit to slap the two together and charge you accordingly?
(Do you like my litany of Jewish mother questions?)
I agree with you, it seems a relatively small thing, and a restaurant ought to come up with a way to make it happen if you ask.
But I can hardly fathom that you would take to airing publicly a tiny logistical complaint in the wake of a place like this just opening — a place that a.) is producing pastrami in the first place and b.) of a quality that that permits you not to criticize but to quibble.
NO RESERVATIONS — THE RESTO POLICY, NOT THE FOODIE-GONZO TV SHOW …:
Are you as frustrated as I am by the no-reservation policy of various new-ish places in DC?
I would love to try places like Little Serow, Izakaya Seki, Estadio, Pearl Dive, etc. But between work and family, going out to dinner on weeknights or at 5:00 on weekends is not really viable, and waiting an hour-plus to be seated is not my idea of a good time.
What is your understanding by why a restaurant adopts a no-reservation policy? Is it a financial imperative to keep turning over the tables constantly?
If the possibility of no-shows is an issue, I’d be happy to put down a credit card and I imagine plenty of other diners would too.
Thinking more cynically, are young fogies like me who take two minutes to plan ahead not the hip clientele these places are after? Or are these places adopting the nightclub model of deliberately keeping a line out front?
Restaurateurs have told me over the years that a no-reservations policy allows them to keep costs down.
Not every restaurant can afford to do it, however. Ironic, huh? It takes a restaurant with visibility or presence in the marketplace to put a policy in place like this.
It’s hard not to be cynical with some of these restaurants. A long wait for a table or a line out the door creates a buzz and makes the place that much more desirable in the eyes of the diner. And perpetuates what for you and many others is a problem.
In a different but related realm, you have a case like Minibar, which only takes reservations by email — and only starting at 10 every morning, and only for a month in advance.
Minibar belongs to a new category of dining, and I am not just referring to chef Jose Andres’s theatrical, often molecular exploits on the plate, which are frequently dazzling.
Minibar is what I call appointment dining. Rarefied and exclusive, an experience beyond what the average diner can afford, is willing to put up with, or will understand. Dining that is beyond dining.
You are asked, on the lengthy form you’re required to fill out, to arrive 15 minutes early for dinner. Whereupon you sit in a kind of staging area until the staff is ready to take you to your seat. Has anyone ever seen the movie “Defending Your Life”? A funny and sweet film from the great Albert Brooks. Sitting in the Minibar staging area reminded me of the film. Everything is white and diaphanous and ethereal; you feel as if you’re being assessed to enter Heaven.
Which, in a sense, you are.
“Congratulations,” the bar chef told my wife and me and four others. “You made it.”
OUR FAITHFUL CORRESPONDENT NAEEM CHECKS IN …:
I have been to Seasonal Pantry on numerous occassions to enjoy their delectable array of savory and sweet offerings. On Friday night my wife, myself and ten of our closest friends finally gathered to break bread at Seasonal Pantry Supper Club.
The atmosphere is unique and priceless for DC. I cannot think of another place within the city limits where you and your fellow diners can gather in a private setting and have a talented chef and his staff cook the meal in front of the diners and serve the diners too. It feels like you are sitting in someone’s home and enjoying a home cooked meal, which is made with a high level of skill and technique.
Every dish was on point and we would could easily eat them all again. But the one dish that stood out above the rest was the Octopus. It was braised and then finished in the pan on high heat, which gave the octopus a nice smokey flavor. It was accompanied by chilis, cilantro, and coconut. The dish was pure umami. A magical dish that hit every taste bud causing a release of endorphins in your brain.
That dish alone was better than any dish that we had at Eleven Madison Park in NYC. What makes it even more magical is seeing how they create these wonderful dishes in the limited space that they have to work with.
The other dish that our group was buzzing about was the lamb shank stew with a twist of middle eastern spices. For some of us it reminded us of a good nehari that we enjoyed as children growing up. It was flavorful and hearty. I loved taking the dinner roll and breaking it and dipping it into the stew. It evoked childhood memories of eating a nice hearty stew by the fireplace during winter as the snow is falling outside. If you are planning a birthday, anniversary, or looking for an excuse to gather with friends, Seasonal Pantry Supper Club is a very good option to consider.
As always love the weekly chat!
Thanks for checking in, Naeem.
And if you don’t mind my sharing a little tidbit about you … Naeem not only wrote up this chat question this morning, but a couple of days ago sent me pictures of the dishes from his great meal.
As he has, I think, for every great meal he has enjoyed over the past couple of years.
There are foodies, and then there are foodies.
ALL THINGS MICHEL RICHARD …:
Todd, have you received any updates in regards to the reopening of Citronelle? We are living in fear…
Also, for a Citronelle Spin Off, have you heard if Mark Slater has accepted a new position? He’s a local treasure, total gem, and I was devastated to hear that he parted ways with Rays.
Lastly, I would like to lobby that the (insert indiscriminately long number of hours) cheese steak come back to Central!
PS I adore this chat and have been keeping up with your reviews and outstanding writing for many years, thank you!
Well, I adore you for saying that! Thank you so much for coming on and making my day …
No word on Slater, but I am hearing that Citronelle is apparently pointing toward a Spring reopen.
Speaking of the cheesesteak, has anyone noticed that the shortribs at Central are now “48 hour” shortribs, not 72?
Downscaling. Horrible. : )
Re: DGS Delicatessen:
I’m very upset they don’t offer a “Bronx Special” like Canter’s Deli in LA – 1/2 Pastrami and 1/2 Chopped Liver. I’m not returning till they do!
See, it wouldn’t be a proper deli if everyone weren’t upset at … everything.
I know you’re joking, but in case you weren’t, you could always just order the chopped liver and a sandwich and — as the Haggadah says of Hillel — “thus did he combine them … “
BEST STEAKHOUSE IN D.C. PROPER? …:
What do you think is the best steakhouse in DC proper?
I’m looking to take my boyfriend out for dinner and in dating an almost vegetarian, he rarely gets to eat steak.
Bourbon Steak is the best in the city proper.
But — and it has nothing to do with your question, I just feel compelled to add: there ain’t a lot of competition.
For a city that used to be a steakhouse and 3-martini town, there just aren’t that many steakhouses. Let alone good ones.
I mean, chatters — talk to me now. You’re knowledgeable and highly discriminating and exceedingly well-traveled. Is there any steak in the city you look forward to eating?
Re: BETHESDA …:
Good, attentive service is important however food is 80% of how a customer like myself judge a restaurant. Not to say horrible service won’t throw me off, but that’s another story.
To be ok with being in the middle with food also resonates my similar feelings to Todd and others about Bethesda’s lack of quality. There’s so much potential, but it just doesn’t live up to the expectations.
It’s too bad too because this side of MoCo would like to go to a swanky place occasionally without driving into DC or to Silver Spring.
However, Rockville is coming up with a slew of new and interesting restaurants and I hope they take the responsibility to bring quality (with service) seriously.
I think that 80% figure you give for yourself is really interesting.
My guess is that that would be the case, or around the case, for most of us on here. We’re food lovers. We live for a good meal.
I think for ordinary restaurant-going folks, that number is a lot lower. Not that you could get anyone to admit to it. I doubt most people would tell you that they don’t like tasty food. But being looked after matters a lot to a lot of people — and it greatly affects how they perceive their food. Danny Meyer, the indisputed king of this sort of thing, wrote a book detailing the importance of taking care of people — anticipating their needs, attending to them with little touches.
I’m always fascinated, after our 100 Best Restaurant issue comes out, how often I get the question: what’s your formula? Meaning, how do you evaluate a place? They want to hear a breakdown of numbers.
These people, I suspect, have an equation in their minds that is somewhere along the lines of: food, 50%; service, 30%; ambiance, 20%.
That’s 50% that has nothing to do with food.
Which would suggest that a great looking place with superior service ought to be able to earn a spot on the list with only OK food.
Not gonna happen.
The reality is that for me, food is the most important consideration by far. And that only with good food am I going to step back and consider other things. At which point only do those other things begin to matter.
Re: SPICE 6, in HYATTSVILLE …:
Yes, Spice 6 is much better than you’d expect. Their samosa chaat is awesome!
Thanks for the recommendations, we may try both!
Keep in touch …
DINING OUT IN 2012 …:
Todd, outside of Izakaya Seki, the most exciting meals where flavors played well together on the plate were not in the Washington, DC area.
I’m getting bored and disappointed by the food scene here (it happens every few years) because a few things happen again and again. Either chains or local chains keep opening up but in different parts or across the city. Places that were once good don’t maintain their consistency and quality and execution take a dive.
Right now, I can’t come up with a single restaurateur that is creating super flavor profiles on a plate, so exciting the way I’ve had in a few restaurants outside of the DC area.
Am I missing any great places that you could steer more towards? Thank so much
Well, with a preamble like that, I don’t dare offer a recommendation! ; )
But seriously — hard for me to know what to consider, even, if I don’t know where you’ve been.
Or am I to assume you’ve been everywhere?
I can share with you some of my most interesting eating of late, and hope that there’s something, or somethings, on the list that inspire you to get out there and eat again — how’s that?
Minibar, DC — all $700 for two of it.
cochinita tacos, posole and chilaquiles at R&R Taqueria, in Elkridge.
pastas at Fiola, DC
chicken tikka with punjabi chole and an egg paratha at Punjabi by Nature, at Chantilly’s Lotte Plaza
pizzas at Vin 909 Winecafe, in Annapolis
broiled live scallop, marinated mackerel and yellowtail sashimi at Izakaya Seki, DC
crabcake with coral aioli and marrow bones at Blue Duck Tavern, DC
chopped liver, matzo ball soup and pastrami on rye at DGS Delicatessen (see up top), DC
falafel at DC Ballers food truck, DC
liver sashimi and slow-cooked shortribs at CityZen, DC
shrimp ‘n’ grits and mochi at Maple Avenue, Vienna
veggie platter at Ethiopic, DC
yum watercress salad at Ruan Thai, Wheaton
fresh aji two ways at Sushi Sono, Columbia
gin and tonic dessert at Jaleo, DC
Puerto Rican lasagna at Mio, DC
steak tartare with mini-tater tots at Mintwood Place, DC
$45, 7-course Thai tasting menu at Little Serow, DC
Arctic char with shrimp, curried squash puree and lobster mushrooms at Montmartre, DC
Caesar salad (made tableside) at The Majestic, Old Town
smoked polenta and sausage agnolotti at Vermilion, Old Town
WHY ARE WE SEEING REPEATS OF THE SAME-OLD, SAME-OLD? …:
A few years ago I asked you why other cities could have moderately-priced restaurants when DC did not. Now, we have a plethora of moderately-priced restaurants, though some might argue that price points are creeping upwards. That’s not the point of my question today.
I would like to know why with so many what should be exciting restaurant openings are we getting repeats of the same old, same old (how many pho shops can this city sustain? Burger joints? Cupcakes? Every which way to cook pork and a new restaurant opens based on a not-so-new idea. You get the gist. If not beating the life out of an idea (aka trend), it’s just an opening of a local chain. Another Taylor Gourmet anyone?
While I understand there are reasons for Taylor Gourmets, I would like to make another plea for the restaurateurs of this city. Could we please have some truly innovative restaurants in the future works to come and open in this city? I’m talking about focusing on the flavors of the plate and truly delivering an exquisite, not experimental, meal because the flavor profile is striking and works in a fantastic way.
Too much to ask? I don’t think so.
I hear you.
The reason you see expansion of local-chain outfits like Taylor, is that people evidently like Taylor. It’s popular. And cheap — well, OK, relatively. In the context of the market.
And the reason you see so many boutique burger joints and high-toned cupcake places is the same reason you see those things all over the place in many cities. They’re cheap. And the upscale gloss makes people think they’re eating something better than Mickey D’s and Cinnabon — the sad, sorry lot of the riff raff.
I’d reserve my scorn for the restaurateurs in this city who could be taking chances but don’t.
Re: STEAKS AROUND TOWN …:
The hanger steak with roasted shallots and red wine sauce at Montmartre.
It’s been my favorite dish there, well, since they first opened. And better than anything I’ve ever had at any DC-area steak house.
Agreed. Immensely satisfying.
And heads up — the new chef there, Brian Wilson, has updated and improved the menu. And without treading too heavily on the essential character of the place.
I’m liking what I’m seeing. More fish and seafood. Lighter, fresher presentations.
It’s good to see.
STEAKS IN D.C., CONT. …:
Re steaks in DC, I think the hanger steak at BLT is phenomenal — they nail a dish that many places, even otherwise good ones, can’t get right.
Now, see, this is telling …
And yes, maybe it’s just telling of the fact that we’re all food lovers and have highly developed interests in dishes and tastes that the vast majority of people would be somewhat put off by.
But why do I think it’s telling of the state of steaks in this city that, when I ask you all to name a steak you would be excited to eat, the first two mentions are for … hanger steaks?
Don’t ge me wrong. I love ‘em. Great flavor. And a great price, too.
But a hanger steak is hardly what the steakhouse exists to serve. First of all, there weren’t hanger steaks a generation ago, not in America. Hanger steaks are a French thing. You’d get laughed at in certain parts of the Midwest for speaking such a thing.
It’s definitely not a statement steak, the hanger steak. And steakhouses are there, in large part, for people — men, grrrr — to make statements. Just as fancy sports cars are there to make statements …
Gotta run, all, I’m in danger of being late for lunch.
Thanks so much for all the questions and comments and rants and suggestions. I appreciate it, always.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 … [missing you, TEK … ]