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 . . .
* Pabu, Baltimore
Why drive to Baltimore when there’s plenty of good sushi in DC? The skewered chicken parts, for starters — luscious mini kabobs of heart, skin, tail, all of them cooked over smoldering logs of Japanese white oak that perfume the room and call to mind the mood-altering atmospherics of a pricey sauna. The sake list (bottles start at $13 and run to four digits) is fantastic, the best and most extensive in the region, and with helpful annotations worthy of a good wine list. And then there’s the sushi — 22 varieties of fish on offer, including a daily selection from Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji market. Take note of the excellent sushi rice; it’s made with fermented vinegar, which tastes like a cross between a craft beer and a digestif and gives the grains more flavor and character.
DGS Delicatessen, DC
My very early — and very brief — word on this artisanal Jewish deli: Go. The matzo ball soup is just about perfect, with a light and exceedingly well-skimmed broth that’s flavored by the (superb) matzo ball and vice versa. The chopped liver — made by a champ at pates and terrines — is just as good, rich but not at all dense, full of chopped egg, and wonderfully capped by a dice of pickled onion and gribenes (schmaltz-fried chicken skins that might as well be called Jewish cracklins). The housemade pastrami is closer to the Montreal model than the Lower East side model — a thick, juice-oozing cut edged with so much spice you would think it had been dipped in coffee grounds; it’s served on good, twice-baked rye with a zesty housemade mustard. One of the biggest, and most welcome surprises, is that while chef Barry Koslow has lightened many of the traditional dishes that DGS features, and upgraded the quality of ingredients of standard deli fare (the pastrami is made with locally sourced meat), he hasn’t sought to prettify the cuisine, or impose his will too strongly. And the prices are eminently reasonable for a casual restaurant in the heart of the city, let alone a deli. Compare tabs with the vastly inferior Second Avenue Deli, in New York, which relies upon mass-produced ingredients for which it charges significantly more.
Rappahannock Oyster Bar, DC
This hopping oyster bar is the best of the early attractions at the new Union Market. Hop a stool and order up a platter of Rappahannock River oysters, either raw or roasted (the latter preparation transforms them from salty-sweet and light to rich and meaty and savory). You can wash them down with a small selection of craft beers, including Chocolate City Beer and DC Brau, or a glass of sherry. The surprise is the crabcake, a contender for the city’s best. Dropped onto the griddle with an ice-cream scoop and given a slight, flattening press to develop a good sear, it’s a massive thing, but also unexpectedly light and delicate for all its girth. It’s not that there’s no binder — every crabcake’s got binder. It’s that the binder that’s there is good binder, and smartly deployed.
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 some months back, 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.
* new this week
MY YEAR IN FOOD:
Hi everyone, and good morning,
I just wanted to let you all know that my story of my year in food is up now!
I hope you enjoy it.
DINING OUT IN WEST SPRINGFIELD …:
I read a post from April 2012 from a Chris G. asking for some good options to eat in West Springfield and thought of Monty’s Steakhouse.
Opened since June 2012, the place is a big hit. Thought you might want to try it and see what you think. I must admit, I am more than a little biased, but a lot of people seem to agree that the food is fantastic.
And why is it that you’re more than a little biased?
You own it? Manage it? Do the cooking?
Anyone else out there know about Monty’s? If so, what can you tell us about it?
OVER/UNDER ON PIZZAIOLO EDAN MacQUAID AT RANGE …:
What do you think the over/under is for how long Edan MacQuaid lasts at Bryan Voltaggio’s Range?
I give it 4 months. For whatever reason this guy does not like to stay in one place for a long period of time.
Can we turn this into a game? Person who is the closest wins a lunch with Todd at a Cheap Eats restaurant?
My theory is that Voltaggio hired MacQuaid to help get the pizza service off the ground at Range and will work with MacQuaid on helping him land his own pizza shop inside the District, which would also allow Valtaggio to make his way into the district too. That is my prediction for 2013.
So now you’re staging your own contests and auctioning me off for lunch, huh? ; )
Four months sounds about right. Who else has a guess?
MacQuaid is like the Larry Brown of cooks and chefs. Or the Peter Chang.
Have paddle, will travel.
He shows up somewhere, makes a splash with his great pies — and leaves.
How many places is it now that he has touched down in or been involved with? 2 Amys. Orso. Local 16. Red Rocks. Range. I know I’m leaving out a couple of others …
Re: PROOF, in PENN QUARTER …:
Heading to Proof tomorrow night. Haven’t been there in a couple of years. Read your review in 100 best. Two questions:
1) Have you had a Manhattan there? Follow your recommendations on who makes good ones and you are spot on. If not on your list I will hit the wines.
2) Checked menu and, of course for the good and as expected, there are changes. Looking forward to the meatballs (per your review) but was unsettled on the 2nd course. I ask you, oh taste Seer, do I go with the Cassoulet of Duck Confit, Pork Belly and Truffled Veal Sausage? Have you heard good things about it? Otherwise I’m thinkin’ Lamb Loin.
Thanks for being there for us. Don’t you dare go anywhere else!
Those last two lines are a wonderful holiday gift; thank you. I appreciate hearing that.
And thank you — all of you — for being there for ME.
Proof makes a stellar Manhattan, one of the best I’ve had in the city. So smooth you could down a couple of ‘em before you know what you’re doing.
And yet I would not let that dissuade you from exploring the wine list. It’s fantastic.
Cassoulet, yes. You’ll need a glass of earthy rich red just for this course.
Generally speaking, if a restaurant has put cassoulet on the menu and the cook seems to know what he or she is doing, then yes, get the cassoulet. Even a middlin’ cassoulet is still a pretty good thing.
ON MEMORABLE MEALS …:
I liked your article on memorable meals. My wife and I work long hours and enjoying a a good dinner, whether it is a fine dining establishment or a cherished hole in the wall, allows us time to catch up on things, discuss matters, and dream about the future.
So true …
I wonder if all the people who can’t see fit to stash their iPhones for even a couple of hours to have the restoration of a meal feel the same?
Thanks for reading.
MICHAEL LANDRUM’S NEW RESTAURANT –? …:
Hey! I live in City Vista and I am patiently awaiting the opening of Michael Landrum’s restaraunt. They seem to be doing work on it every day.
Do you know when he will be opening this one?
I don’t. I don’t think anyone does. I don’t think Landrum himself knows.
I fully expect to be getting a call one morning that the restaurant will be opening later that day at 5:17 p.m. — maybe, if all goes well — and that it will be a steak place, most likely — unless he decides at the last second that it will be a seafood place — that is, if he can get a shipment of fish and shellfish, which is highly unlikely — in which case, yes, expect a steakhouse — but don’t expect anything like a menu or even a sign out front, which would lock him into a name that he reserves the right to change at 5:16 — that is, assuming he opens then at all.
DINING OUT IN PITTSBURGH …?:
Hi Todd —
Can you or any of the chatters throw me some Pittsburgh dining recommendations? Anything and everything is appreciated.
HELP! — NEED A CAN’T-MISS MEAL DOWNTOWN …:
With two young kids, my wife and I rarely get a night out downtown anymore. On Thursday, we head to a happy hour at Bobby Van’s Grill and we’d like to eat (somewhere else) afterwards.
What’s new or ‘can’t miss’ downtown these days? Where’s the one place you would head to downtown? Previously, we’ve enjoyed Central and Bombay Club.
With two young kids myself, I understand the pressure you feel to knock it out of the park with the precious little time you and your wife get to yourself.
I’d be looking at any of these three: Fiola, Proof and Adour.
I can’t imagine you wouldn’t have a great time at any of them. Just depends on what sort of meal you’re looking for. Sumptuous Italian at Fiola. Small plates, great mood, fantastic wines and cocktails at Proof. Great refined French at Adour in a quietly dynamic room.
I’ll be interested in hearing which way you turn — drop back on and let me know how things turned out. Great, I trust. But we do like our details on here. : )
Good luck …
FOLLOWING UP: THE $75 LAMB AT ZAYTINYA …:
ok, I’m not going to defend the waitress at Zaytinya….but…$75 for 6 people is only $12.50, which is about 1.5 mezze orders from the meat section at Zaytinya.
The lamb kabob mezze runs $10, the lamb shank $14, and the lamb chops go for $20.
So really, a whole lamb shoulder for $75 kinda sounds like a bargain!
You make a good point.
I wish the waitress had made that same point.
I also think it’s bad form of restaurants not to mention the price of specials. What’s there to hide?
And back to the $75 for a second. What if not everyone at the table wants lamb? Even if they all do, it’s still a big investment, if you ask me — chaining the table, in a sense, to that one big dish and dictating, in a sense, the terms of the rest of the meal.
Incidentally, I asked about a special recently, which was listed on a big board near the kitchen. The waitress said it was great. I said, yes, and it’s $46. Her reply: “It comes with soup.”
It was a good meal, nonetheless. Without, I should point out the $46 special-with-soup.
I had one of the worst meals of the year — of any year — last week. I share this in the interest of proving to you, dear readers, that it isn’t all champagne and foie gras and blissful good times.
First I saw a roach and killed it. We moved away from the wall.
Then, fifteen minutes later, another emerged as the owner deposited our entrees. We should’ve left. But we didn’t.
Twenty minutes later the owner came by to say the meal was on the house — frowning halfway through getting the words out because he spotted another: right there in the middle of the table, with his little feeler waving his hello.
Re: DINING OUT IN PITTSBURGH …:
For the Pittsburgh person:
The Big Burrito group of restaurants are reliable, particularly Soba and Casbah. Tamari. Get the Lobster Maki.
There’s also a great pizza and housemade pasta place, as well as a hipster Mexican bar (get the Root cocktail w Dr. Pepper, really) in that same neighborhood.
Harris Grill for bacon wings. La Casa has solid tapas and a cute patio. Park Bruges for good mussels, carbonnade etc. My friend Melissa, who’s a food writer there, swears by Cure. My sister, who lives there, likes Meat & Potatoes, Toast, NOLA on the square (not positive on the name for that one).
Well, that didn’t take long.
Thanks for all the tasty-sounding tips …
For the past couple of years I have followed your reviews and chats avidly. I have dined in almost all of the new restaurants that have opened and followed your recommendations with great enthusiasm and interest. I had spectacular meals and disappointing ones all over Washington dc It seems to me you are a hard core supporter of a circle of few that deliver simplicity like Fiola, Mintwood Place or Red Pearl in Rockville. I have witnessed a serious lack of interest and respect for others that are more complex in creativity and techniques like Rogues 24, Elisir, Adour or even Palena or The Source Why is that? I am just curious as I personally had great meals in all of them in different occasions. I noticed you reward excessively and repetitively only a few restaurants in an almost nauseating way to a point that any recommendations on your chats or articles are always and constantly singled out with endorsements to 2 or 3 names only. What gives?
I’m not sure I understand exactly what you’re trying to say, but I will say that you’re paying very selective attention.
For the past couple of years, I have had Adour rated as a three or three-and-a-half star restaurant. When The Source opened, I wrote a rave, and gave it three stars. I liked a lot of the cooking at Elisir; take a look at my very positive two-and-a-half star review in the magazine. I have singled out, again and again, Frank Ruta’s work at Palena, and believe him to be one of the finest chefs in the city; or any city for that matter.
I was tough on Rogue 24 when it opened; I still don’t think it’s as fully realized as it ought to be given its mission and high cost, but my most recent meal there was enjoyable, the best I’ve had there.
I will also say that Palena Cafe is spottier than it used to be, and I have never thought the space was interesting or attractive.
The Source can be very good; but it used to be great.
I have very high expectations of places at that level. I have different expectations of places at the level of Mintwood Place. (Fiola, which you lumped in with Mintwood Place, has gotten pretty expensive.)
You mentioned Red Pearl, which was in Columbia and has shut down. I think you meant to say East Pearl, which I was very high on when it first opened. The cooking was terrific. It has since fallen, and, if you notice, I don’t recommend it. Not saying it’s terrible, just that I wouldn’t go out of my way to seek it out.
Re: THE 3-ROACH RESTAURANT …:
PLEASE tell us where this roach incident occurred!!
I understand all restaurants have to deal with critters now and again, especially in the city but that sounds like a full on infestation of roaches and wouldnt that be a health code violation??
I must admit I am insanely squeamish about roaches. (ick ick ick)
You’re not alone; a lot of you have been writing in to ask in panic what restaurant this was.
Here’s why I’m not going to name it.
I don’t need to kill it by telling you what it’s called. Believe me, it is not going to be in business for long; I did not need a 3-roach sighting to tell me that it was not long for this world.
It’s not a name you would know; I had never heard of it until I drove past and walked in.
It’s not in the city or in any town that any of you spend any time in.
Re: THE 3-ROACH RESTAURANT …:
But how was the food?
“But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”
Since you asked … the tally for the night was: one dish that was decent, one that was eh, and another that was pretty good.
LUNCH NEAR THE BOTANICAL GARDENS … ?:
Todd: Planning a visit over the holidays to the Botanical Garden in DC to see the festive display. Any suggestions for lunch in that part of the city?
The Mitsitam Cafe might be just what you’re looking for. Better than the usual museum fare, in an attractive and comfortable setting.
Or if you’re willing to go a little further afield — Johnny’s Half Shell, on the Hill, for chargrilled oysters, Crab Louis salad, chicken wings with green goddess dressing, crabcakes and some fantastic pies and cakes.
Re: THE NEW MINIBAR …:
Now that you have eaten at the new reviatlized MiniBar, do you think it is better than Rogue 24 or is there a new king of molecular gastronomy in town?
I was taken by a great number of dishes at Minibar.
I found these dishes to be fascinating, thoughtful, delicious.
I thought it was a real narrative of a meal and had great unity.
I think it succeeds in what it is attempting to do, which is to bring the diner into the lab of Andres, which is to say, into the mind of Andres. It is dinner as pure theater, an excursion into the manifold possibilities of flavor and not food, the bourgeois restaurant meal transformed into a kind of avant-garde art.
It is also insanely expensive. By point of comparison, dinner at the Inn at Little Washington, the most expensive meal in the area, begins to look like a deal. It is 50 percent more expensive than it was before, and that is not including drinks.
For that money, I longed for a larding-on of luxury ingredients like lobster, foie gras, sweet breads, real Kobe. There was a small half teaspoon of caviar. There was a shaving on of truffles. (The emphasis, the be-all, end-all is the kitchen’s painstaking manipulation of ingredients, the transformation of something recognizable into something else, which is sometimes recognizable but not as what it had previously been.)
It is stagey and awkwardly conceived as a dining experience.
It is self-congratulatory in the extreme, the absolute rejection of the central principle that informs the decisions at nearly every level of every other restaurant — namely, that the operation is in the hospitality industry, and there to serve the diner. Here, you are made to feel that you are worthy simply to have been selected to attend dinner.
It is, in a very real sense, unrecommendable, because I cannot imagine who, beyond a select few jet-setting foodies for whom money is no object and being in the know is of the utmost importance, the place is for. I would have genuine misgivings, for instance, urging any of you to drop that kind of money on dinner — even a dinner that is not meant to be dinner in any conventional sense of the term, and is bound to provoke you and amuse you and frustrate you and mystify you and any number of other things that, for instance, a great exhibit or movie or novel will.
DINNER OUT IN LIEU OF X-MAS PRESENTS …:
My fiance and I decided to do a special night out in lieu of Christmas presents this year, and are debating options for this Saturday night – right now the contenders are Eola and Obelisk.
Any thoughts or alternative options you’d suggest?
Gotcha — you don’t want to venture beyond P St. between 20th and 21st. : )
I think those sound like good choices for your special night. Can’t really go wrong either way.
I also think this is a good way for friends and not just lovers to exchange gifts.
For one thing, if anyone’s disappointed, you’re both disappointed!
THINKING AHEAD TO NEW YEAR’S EVE …:
What is on your NYE menu this year?
Really? You’re thinking that far ahead?
I don’t usually give any thought to New Year’s until everyone’s past X-mas.
The exception was the change-over New Year’s, in 2000, when I had friends over for an 9-hour party that included 12 courses.
This year — dunno.
I can tell you that we’ll be home, probably with a few friends, and that my wife likes to have some steamed or poached shrimp in addition to champagne. Beyond that and the champagne, we’re open to ideas.
Next Tuesday is X-mas day and the Tuesday after is New Year’s Day, so I won’t be talking with all of you again until January 8th.
I just want to say thank you for all the Tuesdays we’ve spent together this year — for your questions, for your tips, for your insights, your gripes, your rants, and for sharing with me your obvious love of food in all its guises. I’m grateful to be sharing my words and tips with such a sophisticated, well-travelled, passionate and interesting bunch of readers.
Have a great holidays.
Be well and eat well, and let’s do it again on the 8th …
[missing you, TEK … ]