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 writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Oxford American, Lucky Peach, 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.
Todd previously taught writing and literature at American University and Howard University. At Howard, he was also the editorial advisor to The Illtop Journal, Chris Rock’s humor magazine modeled after the Harvard Lampoon.
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
ISO: GREAT BAGEL AND CREAM CHEESE …:
Where can I get an amazing New York style bagel and cream cheese?
I’ve got two places for you to try.
Goldberg’s New York Bagels, on Georgia Ave. near 16th St., in Silver Spring.
And a place in Annapolis, on West St., called Bagels and …
I love them both.
If it’s just bagels and cream cheese you want, then save yourself the trip and go to Goldberg’s.
If you’re looking for bagels and lox, then you want Bagels and …
Goldberg’s bakes great bagels, but their sandwiches are skimpy and the lox, in general, is not nearly in the class that Bagels and …’s is.
Both of these shops more than hold their own with anything in New York, and from what I’ve been eating the past few years, actually surpass the efforts of most places.
Good morning, everyone.
Just a bit of housekeeping before we get too deep into the chat today — I wanted to let you all know that I’ll be on the Kojo Nnamdi Show tomorrow from 1-2, talking about the 100 Very Best Restaurants and, more broadly, “what makes a great restaurant.”
Curious to hear your thoughts on this subject — what, to you, makes a place great?
Are there different standards in your mind for a small, independent, family-run place and a trendy, big-time restaurant with a wine and spirits program and a name chef?
What does a restaurant need to do and to be in order to get you to come back again? What does it need to do and to be in order to get you to become a regular?
FOLLOWING UP FROM LAST WEEK: “FEELING SQUIRRELLY” …:
I am one of the posters who commented on that Alison should take up the offer to dine at Proof but not to be the obnoxious diner who orders the most expensive item in every category.
There is no guilt (religious or otherwise) here. It’s not about appearing too greedy or too miserly. To me, being miserly is as distasteful as being greedy. It’s simple. It’s similar to receiving a compliment. Some people would try to downplay the compliment in a way where it says that the person is not deserving of the compliment. Whereas, too few people say, “thank you,” which is the best response. There also might be some people inclined to respond to a compliment with a boastful response, which would remind me of someone who accepts the offer but in an obnoxious, tasteless manner.
Perhaps “moderate” means different things to different people. Pick things you like and enjoy. Enjoyment is the best way to show your appreciation.
I like that — “enjoyment is the best way to show your appreciation.”
A good attitude, a good approach to life …
Thanks for chiming in, even if belatedly — these conversations don’t necessarily have to end with the end of our chat.
Your thoughts on boastfulness and modesty remind me of one of my favorite sayings — from Golda Meir: “Don’t be so modest. You’re not that great.”
Pithy. Funny. Withering. And true.
DINING IN PHILLY — SOME NOTES …:
Hey Todd, some notes from my recent trip to Philly.
The wood oven baked tripe with potato and fried egg at Osteria was the perfect foil for a cold February night.
Zahav was excellent, vibrant flavors, good energy, and the large glass windows were a lovely backdrop for watching the snow fall outside.
Tria, near Rittenhouse Square, was a snug place to spend an hour or so drinking wine and you can’t beat $4 brushetta and the Italian salumi plate was a steal at $10.
The Barnes Collection was fabulous, make sure you get tickets at least a month in advance. Topped the weekend off with an roast pork, provolone, and broccoli rabe sandwich from DiNic’s in Reading Terminal Market.
Damn you and your eating adventures, Van Ness! — I’m hungry, now, thinking about that roast pork sandwich … and that tripe with potato and fried egg … and that cheap-o salumi plate …
I don’t think enough people in the DC area take advantage of the fact that Philly is only a couple of hours away. One of the great strengths of its scene — its Italian food — is one of the conspicuous weaknesses of ours.
I recently did a long eating weekend in Richmond — again, only two hours away, and a place that few in this area have on their dining radars. I hope that changes. Richmond has really made some interesting strides in the past few years.
I have a piece coming out in April about dining in Richmond, but I can tell you that I had some terrific meals on this trip and on my previous two trips this past year.
The surprise was a place called Lehja that might all by itself be reason enough to make the trip down. This was one of the most exciting Indian meals I’ve had in the past couple of years. The vindaloo wasn’t just scorchingly hot — unlike too few versions of this dish, you could taste the balancing hit of acid. A Keralan seafood and fish dish, lush with coconut, was fantastic. There’s a Level 2 sommelier on staff, and the wine
list is interesting and impressive, and not just for an Indian restaurant.
And — just curious — has anybody been to The Roosevelt? Terrific spot from restaurateur Kendra Feather, who has two other places in town. It’s housed in a one-time apothecary. I like the menu — an appealing twist on Southern comfort food traditions, and I like the fact that you can dine or graze. And I like its prices (nothing tops $21, and many dishes are in the $14 range). There’s also an all-Virginia wine list, an audacious move. I would go down just for the chicken skin sliders with homemade pickles ($4) and the Coca-Cola cake.
BAGELS AND CREAM CHEESE, CONT. …:
For the person looking for good bagels and cream cheese, check out the Capital Bagel Bakery in Bradley Shopping Center in Alexandria.
Bagels are excellent, cream cheeses are made in house and are awesome, breakfast sandwiches are yummy as are deli sandwiches. Service is meh but the trade off is worth it!
Thanks for the tip!
Wondering, by the way, whether you’ve been to Goldberg’s and Bagels and … and found them wanting, or is it just that this is your neighborhood spot and you’re high on it?
Re: HOLLYWOOD EAST CAFE, IN WHEATON, AND IVY NOODLES, IN COLLEGE PARK …:
Hi Todd –
I don’t mean to change the subject but we mostly go to small family run restaurants and so I can’t really address the “very best” questions.
A couple of weeks ago you mentioned Hollywood East and I totally agree that it hasn’t been the same in food or atmosphere since the move. We still go every so often for the fried taro dumplings, because there really isn’t anywhere else (I hear the place in Columbia closed?).
There’s a new place in College Park called Ivy Noodles – have you tried it? I’ve only been once but it was pretty good, and it’s rare to get congee in this area. Thanks!
For dim sum, the place you want to go is Oriental East, in Silver Spring.
They’ve been around a long time, and the cooking has stayed pretty consistent. But get there well in advance of 11, when the doors open, or you may wait a while. Or course, that’s the best sign of all that a dim sum restaurant is doing well.
It’s funny you bring up Ivy Noodles. I tried to go for lunch a couple of weeks ago and the plaza that houses it had experienced a power failure. I’ll make a point of returning.
And as for weighing in on the question of what makes a restaurant great — I would still love to hear from you. And anyone else out there who tends to eat at family-style or neighborhood restaurants. I don’t regard the question as being limited to the realm of fine dining. What are the qualities you look for in the places you tend to go? What makes these places great?
Re: THAI X-ING, NEAR THE HOWARD THEATER …:
We just made reservations for a V Day Dinner (on the 15th) at Thai X-ing. We have never been, but I know its not a “normal” dining experience.
Any tips or things we should know going in? Do you still recommend the spot? Thanks for all you do!
Aww, thanks …
I wrote about Thai X-ing just last week in this space. I have somewhat mixed feelings about it, as I said, but its quirkiness and obvious separation from the pack endear it to me.
Expect pacing problems — one of the things I talked about last week.
I also talked about the fact that the meal would be stronger, as a whole, if there were five courses instead of 7 or 8, and there were greater variety among the dishes. Still, you will experience a degree of heat and pungency that you seldom do in the Thai restaurants in this area, and that makes for something bracing and sometimes exciting.
Also: be sure to bring a bottle of wine; they’re a BYOB. Forgo a red; few reds can stand up to the assault of the cooking. I’d think about a Gewurtztraminer or a Gruner Veltliner or a Riesling. Something sweeter is going to help to balance that spice.
Enjoy yourselves. I’ll be interested in hearing how it turns out …
Re: DGS Delicatessen, in South Dupont Circle:
I had a question/comment about DGS.
I ate there not too long ago and was really excited about trying out the pastrami sandwich. I am from Northern NJ so I’m accustomed to the awesome pastrami sandwich that you can get in NYC.
I found the pastrami at DGS to be almost unchewable. It was thick and tough. Did I go on an off day? Should I try again? I much prefer it thin sliced but if it is normally easy to chew, I’d be happy with the thick slice as I LOVE pastrami!
They’re going for something closer to Montreal-style than New York-style.
(Interestingly, the bagels for the pastrami-style smoked salmon are Montreal-style, too.)
In Montreal, there is no such thing as pastrami and corned beef — only “smoked meat.” Which, yes, tastes like a cross between the two, but is sliced more thickly, is spiced more liberally (whole spices cling to the edges of the meat, as opposed to the coffee-grind style you see in New York delis), and comes in full-fat, medium-fat, or lean.
Medium-fat is perfect, I think. And perfect also describes the sandwiches at Schwartz’s in Montreal, one of the places I’d put on my food lover’s must-hit destinations.
I will say that my most recent corned beef at DGS was kind of dry, something I had not experienced in any of the sandwiches I’d eaten there previously, be they corned beef or pastrami.
You probably got a sandwich on the dry side; maybe the meat had been left sitting for a bit before a server delivered it to your table. That’s too bad. Because with the exception of that dry sandwich I mentioned — and a good but not memorable reuben — the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches I’ve had there have been rich and luscious. The stuff of cravings.
Re: WHAT MAKES A RESTAURANT GREAT …:
One important factor for returning frequently to a restaurant, for me, is having a good mix of old stand-bys and new items.
It’s a hard balance to strike because you’ll never please everyone, but if you design the menu at all to take seasonal items into account you should always be changing some things up.
Sure. I’m with you.
Back to the question of what makes a restaurant great for a second … I wanted to test a theory …
I’ve generally thought that for the non-food obsessed, service counts as much, if not more, than the cooking. I doubt that many of them will put it like that — who wants to admit that they don’t care about the quality of the food? — but I think they do think it. In other words, I think that for NFO’s it’s the totality of the experience that matters most, and great service makes or breaks a place if the food is decent.
I tend to think that for the food-obsessed, we are willing, perhaps, to overlook certain things if the food knocks our socks off. We go for the cooking; we stay for everything else. Or something like that. I think you get my point. What compels us to go, what get us excited, is the cooking. We’re not, most of us, going to a place for “the experience.” We’re going so that we can revel in a killer roast chicken. For the NFO’s, by contrast, I would argue it’s more the gestalt.
Re: MASALA ART, IN TENLEYTOWN …:
Just wanted to follow-up re: concerns over a drop in quality at Masala Art. We grabbed some take-out on Super Bowl Sunday, the restaurant was empty except for a three-top. Everything was spot on – samosas, paneer till tikka, dhal, and chana (all on our regular rotation). The only weak item was the naan, which was doughy and probably needed another minute or so in the tandoor.
Good to hear. Thanks for the report.
My meal was still my meal, however. But — slate wiped clean. I’ll return and see what’s what.
It does bother me, however, when a place does a brisk business in take-out. It often engenders a certain reordering of priorities.
It’s a beautiful restaurant; I don’t think they could have done any better with the space they inherited. It’s a shame that Tenleytown’s residents seem to be using the place for grab-and-go.
FEELING SQUIRRELLY, CONT. …:
I said last week that I would take the restaurant up on it’s offer, but not order anything too over the top.
I say this not because I have guilt issues (I’m Catholic, not that it should really matter, should it?), but because I don’t want to take advantage of the restaurant’s generosity (you used the term “grubby”, I believe, which is apt). It’s making an attempt to make it right; if the service improves measurably, I would still tip generously.
Thanks for coming back on and chiming in.
This isn’t a major issue in the food world or anything, but I find it oddly interesting. It’s essentially a matter of etiquette — what do you do if you find yourself presented with a very nice and very generous offer like the one that’s been made to you?
I was being facetious when I brought up guilt, though I — and apparently others — don’t see any real reason to order cautiously. I don’t think it’s being “grubby” to ignore prices and simply, as one chatter above put it, enjoy your meal.
BAGELS AND CREAM CHEESE. CONT. …:
For the bagels and cream cheese question I’d love to put the Buffalo and Bergen bagels on your radar.
Top them with the smoked salmon from Neopol smokery (or for a real nice surprise top it instead with smoked egg salad). Have you tried them yet? I’m sure the bagels in Annapolis are lovely but Union Market is much closer to the house than going across the bridge for my weekend “brunch”
Well, they’re more than lovely; they’re drive-worthy.
And if you want the genuine article — a light, not too big, not dense, not underbaked bagel smeared thickly with cream cheese and topped with satiny Nova or salty belly lox, onions, tomato, and capers — then there’s only one place to go. I don’t think questions of proximity matter at all when it comes to something essential as this. You hop in the car on a Saturday or Sunday morning and you drive.
I’m curious to give the Buffalo and Bergen bagels a taste, though. Thanks.
FIELD REPORT: COMING BACK TO D.C. …:
I am the reader who was coming back into DC for a weekend of work and dining. You asked for a report, so here goes.
I had lunch at Rasika West End. I had eaten dinner at the original Rasika quite a few times, but I had never eaten at the new Rasika and never for lunch. However, I really was not nervous because Rasika has always put out such a fine product. I was not disappointed. I started with the Palak Chaat. I wanted to order something new, but I could not bring myself to neglect their signature dish. It had not changed at all, still sublime and completely balanced. It almost reminds me of a Thai dish, not the flavors necessarily, but the balance. Sweet, crispy, salty and spicy; Completely harmonious flavors, all working different parts of the tongue and teeth at the same time. I also had a chicken dish, a lamb dish and a perfectly cooked scallop dish. All were great. My only complaint was the basmati rice. It was clumpy, dry, and tired; I think that it was day old. But with the excellence of the other dishes, I can live with bad rice.
For dinner I braved the cold and the line at Little Serow. Little Serow overall was good, but with some caveats. I suspect that the over the top rave reviews may be due partially to the fact that while Southern Thai food is very prevalent in the States, Northern (or Issan) Thai food is relatively rare. In fact, the only other place (other than in Thailand) where I have had Issan cooking is at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, which has excellent Issan food. Before you argue that Chef Monis’ purpose is not to recreate Thai food, but rather interpret it; Let me say, I get that. I understand that Chef Monis is merely giving his take on Issan food, just as he gives his take on Greek food at Komi. However, I think a baseline for Issan food is helpful in evaluating Serow. As I wrote earlier, the food and experience overall was good. The wine selection was limited but mostly Rieslings, which paired excellently with the food. My main issue with the food was that it was just a little too sweet and the dishes were missing some more sour and bitter. A little more liberal use of lime juice and/or zest would have helped balance the dishes. However, the crunch, freshness and heat was pretty spot on. Further, I loved the use of the snakehead fish, using a pest fish as food is bizarro sustainability, if that makes sense. The only other issue I had was with the price. Thai food is pretty simple and uses pretty simple and cheap ingredients. I have read various articles describing the price at Little Serow as inexpensive. I disagree. While it is certainly not as price prohibitive as Komi, this is an unfair comparison. An Issan meal should not cost $150 for two people (dinner, two glasses of wine and one beer), including tax and tip. None of the ingredients used in my meal were particularly expensive. However, given the dearth of restaurants that offer Northern Thai cooking, maybe part of the price of admission is due to the rarity of the product.
I also ate the dim sum brunch at The Source. Some dishes that I ordered were up there with the best dim sum that I have ever had. I would recommend it to anyone. The duck bao buns, lobster and shrimp spring rolls and shrimp dumplings are especially delicious. The duck in the duck bao buns has perfectly crisp skin. The spring rolls are perfectly fried; greaseless and crispy. The shrimp dumplings have a perfect consistency and the dipping sauce has a slightly smoky and spicy quality. It is painful to say, but The Source does dim sum better than any other restaurant in the DC area.
You’re very astute. All the way around.
What you say about The Source is true — best dim sum in the area right now, which is, yes, kind of “painful” to say, as you say.
Interesting observation about the Thai-like properties of Rasika’s signature palaak chaat. Hadn’t thought of it that way before, but you’re right — great, harmonious balance.
Re: Little Serow. I agree that the ingredients are not particularly expensive, but their quality is high. I don’t think it’s a cheap night out by any stretch of the imagination. And I, for one, have never said so. But the quality of the cooking, the excitement, the level of detail that has gone into these dishes — all this, to me, makes the cost justifiable.
Oh, and I love that line about the snakehead — using a pest fish as food is an instance of “bizarro sustainability.” Hilarious. And true.
Many thanks for your thoughtful report …
WHAT MAKES A RESTAURANT GREAT, CONT. …:
As Danny Meyer said: you go to a restaurant for the first time for the food but whats makes a diner return is the quality of service they receive.
I think he’s speaking of the average diner — the casual diner. If you will — the NFO.
But I’m interested in all of you, the food-obsessed, and what keeps you — us — going back. Or going in the first place.
FEELING SQUIRRELLY, CONT. …:
And of course, Alison should tip based on the retail price of the menu…
Spoken — I’m guessing — like a veteran waiter or waitress.
You’re absolutely right, though. Thanks for chiming in …
Re: DGS DELICATESSEN, IN SOUTH DUPONT CIRCLE …:
Actually, the bagels at DGS aren’t Montreal-style…they’re Montreal. Par-baked and delivered to DC.
At least according to RJ Cooper, who mentioned this to my husband and I during a meal at Rogue 24 in which the subject of DGS came up!
And that, to me, makes them Montreal-style.
Is par-baking and mailing preferable to having them boiled and baked and sent down days later? Probably, for the restaurant’s purposes. But it’s also not — quite — the real thing.
What’s interesting, here, to me is what DGS is saying, in effect, about New York bagels, which it might be able to get more easily.
WHAT MAKES A RESTAURANT GREAT, CONT. …:
In response to “What makes a perfect restaurant?” I have criteria for two types of restaurants;
One I can bring my child with special needs to and one I can go to be an adult. What I look for is can they accommodate my child and his quirky diet as well as make me and hubby happy and will the atmosphere be forgiving of my child’s quirks.
The second is actually more important, as we do not get to go out that often. I want to be with adults, in a quiet restaurant with stellar food (not necessarily cutting edge but high quality and not boring) that is worth the cost. I want to be pampered and lavished with good food and service. I like a little jazz in the background, but not music that is too noisy or distracting. I want the adults around me to be polite and well dressed. Not dressed to the nines, but not shorts and T’s either. Just because you can do shorts and T’s doesn’t mean you should! I want to relish the time with my husband, as it is such a precious commodity, I want to enjoy the wine, the food and the ambiance in that order and at the end of the evening I want to be able to say that it was worth the effort that it took to make this night happen. And believe me it is always an effort for us to go out so it really needs to count.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this …
It’s asking a lot, all these things you mention above. And yet we ask a lot of restaurants, all of us — NFO’s and FO’s, both.
I think it’s remarkable that so many restaurants do such a good job in meeting such a vast variety of needs and expectations, and that they do it so consistently.
WHAT MAKES A RESTAURANT GREAT, CONT. …:
Oriental East, of course! We went a long time ago and decided Hollywood was better, which was true at the time. I guess it’s time to revisit.
As to what makes a restaurant great, for us it’s obviously delicious food and value. We can put up with a lot if those things are there – I am thinking the “atmosphere” at R&R and the less than great service at Ruan Thai, and we frequent both places. Delicious places that are more expensive (Estadio is one) – we simply can’t afford to be regulars. Combine mediocre food with bad service and it’s certain that we won’t go back.
Speaking of service, we had a really funny waiter at Old Line Bistro, the kind that makes you a little uncomfortable. But we will probably go back because I like that their beer comes in two sizes so I can try several kinds. Thanks again!
Hollywood East, in its heyday, was better than Oriental East. But things have flipped. It’s a shame. Hollywood East was a really special place on a Saturday or Sunday morning.
I’ve been twice to Old Line, and service has had its problems both times. Not of the insulting kind. Not of the kind that makes you feel that you’re being blown off, or ignored.
It’s a new spot, four months old, and I think they would benefit enormously from giving the staff more training in how to pace and clear, and also instructing them in the finer points of the beers and craft spirits (about $4, by the way, for a half-ounce pour; great deal) as well as the dishes on the menu.
ISO: HIDDEN GEMS …:
Have you stumbled across any new hidden gems like Punjabi by Nature in Northern VA? Looking for something new to sink my teeth into, especially after finishing my three trips in three weeks to Izakaya Seki and spending time trying to convince my mom to reveal her mooli paratha recipe for Dan at Seasonal Pantry.
Guess, looking for the next thing to excite my taste buds! As always love the weekly chat!
Well, I’d put the Bistro at Old Line Fine Wine & Spirits up there as a hidden gem — I mean, a bistro in a former Beltsville big box. Come on.
Though it’s not the culinary destination that’s going to move you to get in your car and drive all the way from Virginia. Nor is it trying to be.
Just know that I’m looking. I’m always looking. I love finding a spot like Punjabi by Nature.
Which, by the way, you all have to try, if you haven’t already.
BAGELS AND CREAM CHEESE, CONT …:
All this talk of what makes a bagel good, and if it’s par-baked does it make it authentic or good reminds me of when I was living in Yonkers.
There was a good deli that did landsale business with commuters going into the City. Everyone always said that their bagel schmears were the absolute best– better than anything in NYC/Bkln. So authentic, so real, so good. I had to take the earliest train one time, and was there at around 4:30; hoping to be first in line, I found that the only person there was the delivery man…carting a pallet of Lenders Bagels.
Don’t you just love stories like this?
BAGELS AND CREAM CHEESE, CONT. …:
I haven’t been to Goldberg’s and Bagels but would love to try it!
We found the Capital Bagel Bakery by accident because it is next to a lacrosse store where we buy my son’s equipment. We are there often and hit up the Bagel Bakery every time we go and just think it is great.
I’m from Northern NJ and finding a great bagel down here took years but we found them!
I’m definitely going. Can’t wait to try them.
Have you been to Cafe Shiraz, also in the Bradlee Shopping Center? I like it. Not necessarily for the kabobs — there are better in the area — but for everything else, in particular the salads, dips and a good and zesty lentil soup.
I’m off to lunch — thank you all for a great chat this morning and early afternoon. Lots of good food for thought, and lots of good thoughts about food. It’s what, I’d like to think, we produce together here every week …
I hope I’ll hear some of you in the call-in portion tomorrow on Kojo — 88.5 WAMU, 1-2 p.m.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]