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: firstname.lastname@example.org
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
* Asi Es Mi Tierra, Wheaton
Peruvian restaurants have gone from being poorly represented to well represented in recent years, and this tiny but lively Wheaton restaurant is a vivid display of why that’s a very good thing. The twin pillars of the cuisine are fish and potatoes, which feature, here, in a wide variety of preparations. The ceviche and tiradito are excellent — absent the mouth-puckering tartness and mealy softness that sometimes results from overmarination, and with a welcome hit of black pepper. The papa rellena — soft mashed potatoes molded over a zesty beef stew and fried just to the point of keeping the whole delicate construction together, but not enough to become hard or dry — is astoundingly light and irresistible; one was insufficient, even with all the plates on my table one night; I was sure I could have eaten four of them. The dish every table orders is the big and bountiful jalea mixta, with three portions’ worth of fried mussels, calamari, shrimp to pick at; it’s crowned with a heap of vinegared, thin-sliced red onions, and there’s even a small dish of ceviche on the side. The two times I ventured beyond fish and seafood were mixed: a dry anticuchos (marinated, grilled beef hearts on a skewer) and a decent chicken Milanesa (the kitchen opts not to pound the cutlets thin before battering and frying them; these were massive). On weekends, there’s breakfast, and the reason to get up early is the fabulous pan con chicharron ($5.50) — strips of juicy roasted pork, slices of roast sweet potato, cilantro, and vinegared onions, all spilling out of a light and crusty sub roll. I hereby nominate it for the local sandwich hall of fame — to take its place alongside such founding members as the Nhu Lan banh mi; the Fast Gourmet Chivito; and the Mangialardo’s G Man.
Monty’s Steakhouse, Springfield
“I normally don’t do field reports like this,” began the Facebook message I received one day a couple of weeks ago, “but if Monty’s Steakhouse in Springfield doesn’t get some attention, then shame on you. It’s easily and by far the best restaurant in the general contiguous suburban sprawl of Springfield, Burke, Lorton, Franconia, southern Alexandria, Fairfax Station and maybe Occoquan.” Consider it done, BB, and thank you for the great tip. I’m not yet ready to make such sweeping claims, but Monty’s is doing a lot of things right. The comfy and subtly stylish space, which situates this steakhouse squarely among the new, non-masculine subset of the genre, is as unexpected as the quality of the cooking at this stripmall Springfiled restaurant. The steaks — hand-trimmed, locally-grown dry-aged prime meat, owner Madana Montazami claims — are big, properly cooked, full of juice, and rewarding, and the sides are cooked with care. For lunch, there’s a very good burger and a prime rib steak sandwich piled high with mushrooms. The Bolivian chef, Marco Camacho, even sneaks a ceviche onto the menu, and it’s as bountiful as it is bright. And I would be remiss if I didn’t put in a word for the service, which has both a snap and sincerity that are too often missing, even in big-city settings.
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
DOSAS, CONT. …:
We tried the doses at Whole Foods in Foggy Bottom. They were simply delicious.
I have never had Indian food here that has tasted remotely like this. What a treat to have a homemade taste without that commercial curry flavor.
Don’t thank me; thank your astute fellow chatters.
We’ve got a savvy, well-traveled, and discerning bunch on here, as no doubt you already know.
Can’t wait to try these, myself.
Thanks for sticking around, everyone. The entire system was down this morning — not just this chat, but the entire webpage.
Hoping we can get into some talk at least before I have to run out to lunch … Fire away …
HELP!– ISO: RECS IN GAITHERSBURG …:
Before baby #2 arrives I’d like to sneak out of work a few times and treat myself to some decadent lunches. At places where one is less likely to bring a child. Quiet, even fancy places. What do you think are some of the best places for posh lunches in the area?
I work up in Gaithersburg, and while I’ll certainly make a few trips into the city I’d also love any suggestions heading in that direction.
Posh lunches in Gaithersburg? Whoa. That’s a stump-the-band question if ever I’ve heard one.
I really can’t think of anything I’d consider posh.
In Bethesda, Redwood feels like a getaway, and it also has a new chef, Antonio Burrell, who has done good work at a wide variety of stops around the area.
In Rockville, there’s Black Market Bistro, which, while not necessarily posh, also has the feel of a retreat. Get the Thai mussels and don’t ignore dessert.
Also in Rockville — Spice Xing, a good Indian restaurant that’s bright and colorful and spacious, and feels like something you might find in the city.
Hope that helps.
I’d love to hear where you end up …
THINKING ABOUT SHAWARMA …:
What shawarma do you recommend in the DC area, including suburbs? I love Max’s in Wheaton, but am curious to know what else is considered worth trying.
I love Max’s, too. Well, I love it for falafel. I like it a lot for shawarma.
The other shawarma that’s coming to mind right now is at Shawafel, on H St. The chicken, in particular. That chicken makes a mean sandwich — juicy, tender, and slathered with garlic sauce.
I can “recommend” the shawarma at Minibar, too, though you can’t order it a la carte. You can’t even order it in barmini. You have to go and get the tasting menu, which costs $225. But the shawarma is fantastic — salty chicken skin, sealed tight inside a lettuce and rice paper wrap, and with a fluff of whipped Greek yogurt.
Re: SUNA, NOW CLOSED …:
Were you as shocked as the rest of us at the closing of Suna this weekend? I had been twice and while it had drawbacks, it also had tremendous potential. Four months is just SO short!
Any thoughts or intel? I guess its a reminder of how brutal the restaurant business really is.
I was shocked, too.
It’s sad. I was looking forward to seeing it grow and evolve.
I just wrote a piece about my experiences at the restaurant here:
HELP! — ISO: A RESTAURANT WHERE I CAN WATCH THE FOOD BEING PREPARED?:
My fiance’s birthday is at the end of the month, and to celebrate he has requested dinner out at a restaurant where he can watch the food being prepared. Do you have any suggestions of places that could fit the bill in DC or Northern Virginia?
He’s a fairly adventurous eater, so international cuisine could be fun, but I’m open to any and all ideas. Thanks for your help!
Well, I think the choice is obvious: Benihana. ; )
There’re a lot of places these days to experience food as theater.
The aforementioned Minibar, the new Table in Shaw, Range in Chevy Chase … and I know I’m forgetting a few others …
Re: DINING IN NOLA …:
Good morning Todd,
I’m meeting a friend for a long weekend in New Orleans next month–any can’t-miss bites we should plan on? We’re both adventurous eaters, and willing to spend money on a good meal.
Thanks for the help!
My cheat sheet is a mix of oldtimers and (relative) newbies:
Cochon, Cassamento’s, Sylvain, Herbsaint, St. James Cheese Shop, Clancy’s, Domenica, Upperline.
Upperline for totality of experience, and for a chance to be taken care of by Joanne Clavenger, a grande dame of the scene. Clancy’s for a taste of old Nola. Cassamento’s for oysters. Sylvain for something loud and trendy, but with soul — and good bistro cooking that has nothing to do with Creole or Cajun traditions. Domenica for really good Italian. Cochon for pig-happy, Cajun-styled, yet very contemporary cooking.
That should keep you a while.
I’ll be curious to hear what all you latched on to, and how things turned out …
Re: CALORIE BOMBS …:
Ok so I am about to start a doctor supervised diet next week. This week I am perversely trying to eat all the high calorie, high fat foods I will miss.
Right now I am eating the loaded fries from Urban BBQ- I thought they would be too much, but they are actually spectacularly good. So the other thing I really want to eat this week is a calzone. Yeah I know, not exactly foodie food, but man I am craving one. Does this exist? Prefer MD or DC- thanks!
Listen: we don’t care on here whether food is “foodie food” or not.
Good is good.
And sometimes, bad is good, too.
This isn’t a great area for calzones, but I’ve had good ones at Coppi’s, on U, and Ella’s, in Penn Quarter; very decent ones at Baffeto, in Adams Morgan; and entirely passable ones at Angelico, in Tenleytown.
Happy chowing, and I hope all goes well with the doc-sanctioned diet. Ugh. Sorry …
SUNA, CONT. …:
I did not get to try Suna, but your recollection sounds like a few meals I’ve had over the years.
I love places that evince a sense of style, and one of the reasons that I like to dine out is because a pro will probably show more flair or daring in a kitchen then I ever could. But after a lot of those meals, I sometimes felt, well, cheated.
I’m not asking for a bronto-sized steak- but maybe more of a sense of value.
Case in point: I don’t think Rays the Steaks is an inexpensive restaurant- it’s a real treat (esp. in this economy) to go there. But there’s value- I can see that there’s a real effort to bring the best for a price that to me is more than fair. The knuckles, smidges, slivers- unless it’s something seriously transcendent, it just seems like the chef isn’t taking customers seriously- at least at some of the prices charged.
Thanks for writing in …
And I hear you.
I’ve had many, many meals like that.
For me, though, in the case of Suna, value was not a prime consideration. (It was my friend who felt the need for a pizza, not I.)
I think there’s a line here, and probably a fine one — between being inventive and being precious, between appearing overdetermined and appearing effortless.
A lot of places walk that line. It’s hard. It’s very hard.
I have eaten a lot of very expensive meals, and when I tell friends of mine or family about those meals and how much they cost, they often recoil in shock. I have sometimes been scolded (scolded! for doing my job). There are people, and I am related to some of them, who are disgusted to discover what it costs to eat “at the top” or even near the top.
But when that meal is phenomenal, I tell them, then the cost doesn’t feel obscene. When everything clicks, and the cooking is brilliant and assured and carries you away, and the staff is kind and amiable and truly enjoys making your time memorable, then you don’t even think about the money.
Re: TABLE — NEW, IN SHAW …:
Good morning, Todd.
I’ve been debating about whether or not to share my thoughts on Table, as it is a place that I had high expectations and it’s a place that I would love to see soar. No, I do not work for the restaurant nor do I have any affiliation with any owners or staff. I dined there within the first few weeks of their opening but didn’t go when they first opened in order to give them time to get their footing and work out any potential kinks.
That said, I was getting revved up for a great experience while looking at their original menu that they had online. By the time I ate there, their menu had changed quite a bit (it was not swapping 1 or 2 things). To be fair, the restaurant does say that they serve casual and seasonal fare and that their menu does change. That, I suppose, was a risk I took. I honestly didn’t think that it would have changed quite that quickly given that the seasons hadn’t really fully changed.
Small point aside, the menu I was presented with a lot less exciting than the items I was contemplating and swooning over before my visit. I’m much more enchanted by the propspect of frog legs, snails, monkfish, bison than I am pork belly, mussels, pasta with ragu, NY strip steak. I was disappointed that so much of the menu had already changed and honestly, everything now presented as an option read like so many other Washington menus. Seriously, pork belly is so overdone. It’s an easy ingredient for restaurants because it’s cheap and flavorful, but it is almost insulting when this diner was anticipating frog legs, monkfish and snails.
Had I seen the revised menu, I would have adjusted my expectations for the experience that night. I ended up tasting the cauliflower soup (though I would have preferred the celery root originally posted on their menu) and to their credit it was very flavorful. A lot of that flavor was from garlic, which I’m on the fence about because I think garlic is an easy way to boost flavor in a dish without truly having to balance and delightfully nuance flavors as an artist would. (Don’t get me wrong, in places, I do love my garlic). I wish the soup were a tad more interesting and layered in that respect.
The space is lovely, if you like a small but cozy space that is designed in keeping of a cool, industrial-like neighborhood and the restaurant is filled with a well-kept crowd, probably skewing youngish (average age likely 30 as opposed to 20). It would have been ideal if the restaurant could have had an island bar so people who endure waits could have that option to stay there while waiting; the people watching is interesting enough to do so.
I understand that they said they wanted to focus on the food, which sort of makes sense. However, when I think of luxuriously comfortable and inspired meals, both food and drink come to mind. Both set the meal, not just the food. So I’m not sure that I fully buy that; if I had a dinner party and didn’t serve or focus on the beverage as much a part of the food, I’m not sure how successful my meal would be.
Anyway, service on my particular night could have used some improvement. I wanted to reserve and give room about the service since the place was still new and the staff had to adjust to the pace of a hot new place that is small and probably always crowded. I do have a question specific to the seasonality of things. While I cringe when I hear marketing words, I am curious as to the season (and if you want to ask about source of origin) where snail, frog legs tend to be sourced and when is high season for them?
As I said, I was a little hesitant in sharing my views because there is so much great potential for Table and I want it to be as great as I think it can be and should be. Thanks so much
So you debated whether you should share your thoughts, and then you shared your debate with yourself. : )
I’ve been once. I love the idea of the place and of the space, or maybe I love what I perceive it can be.
The kitchen is half the restaurant, which I find fascinating, but the mood, given the tight proceedings, is all wrong. It’s oddly stuffy. The staff and cooks should be wearing t-shirts (the staff already wears Chuck Taylors, the ubiquitous signifier of hip-itude for a restaurant nowadays). The music should be loud. I mean, every other restaurant in the city is loud, loud, loud, and yet a tiny slip of a place like this, in a restored garage, can’t see fit to crank up the tunes? A looser, louder vibe would go a long way. A sense that everybody is having fun and “hey, can you believe we’re putting on a restaurant here?”
I had some good dishes. The cauliflower soup was a disappointment; not enough taste of the vegetable, and the embellishments, including smoky, salty capers, pushed the dish off the edge for me. I really liked my seafood choucroute, a daring prep I thought for a small restaurant; the orchestration of ingredients was very well handled. A tagliatelle with Bolognese was good, but also oddly prissy; I don’t want to see perfectly manicured, miniaturized cubes of vegetable in the ragu; this isn’t a French dish, it’s an Italian dish. The noodle should have more robustness, more chew; what I had, instead, was delicately thin, as if the goal were elegance.
I found the pricing strange, too. The tagliatelle was $18, while the choucroute, which came with head-on shrimp, mussels, and clams, cost $22.
The course corrections are easy enough, I would think. I hope they give some thought to tweaking. The place has potential.
FOLLOWING UP: DUTCH OVEN BREAD, FROM LAST WEEK …:
Using a dutch oven to bake bread is considered by many pros to be the best method for creating great bread at home.
This is because that method producing the necessary steam needed for maximum rise similar to what commercial steam injection ovens put out. Other methods include setting a cast iron skillet on a lower rack and pouring ice cubes to create that steam.
There are a number of great books by Jim Lahey, Chad Robertson (Tartine Bakery) and Ken Artisan that swear by this method.
I was surprised by my results. I have been able to produce results that closely mirror what their respective bakeries produce.
In Chad’s book, he even profiles home recipe testers with their results through stories and photographs that say the same thing. Ken has some youtube videos he released with his book that make some of the prep easier to understand than text and pictures.
If you care to try a no-knead recipe that uses the Dutch oven before buying those great books, I would recommend this recipe. Dutch oven to make no-knead bread http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/081mrex.html?_r=0
Thanks so much for enlightening me, and also sharing your story of success. I appreciate it. And one day soon, yes, I’m going to try my hand at this. Sounds great.
If you have a moment, I would love to take a look at the Chad Robertson recipe, if you have it or don’t mind copying it. email@example.com
CALORIE BOMBS, CONT. …:
To the person starting the Doctor supported “diet,’ I assume this is for weight loss and overall health, If so, the whole I’m going to go out with a bang mentality is why you might have problems. This coming form a former chunky monkey.
The minute you change your mentality to “let’s eat well and indulge only occasionally” is the minute it will all click and you will get it right. Good luck, but why not start now? The first step is the beginning of the journey.
Aw, let the man eat in peace …
It’s just for one more day. One last wonderfully overstuffed sandwich for the road. He promises.
WATCHING THE PREP, CONT. …:
If they’re looking to splurge, I think Volt in Frederick still does the Table 21 thing.
Yep. Good call.
I don’t know that I would call it a splurge; I think it’s pretty well beyond a splurge, whatever that word would be.
Table 21, for those who don’t know, is the name of the prime perch in the house — a spot literally in the kitchen, where you are served an elaborate tasting menu and can watch the bridage of cooks in action.
Time to run, well past when I wanted to leave for lunch …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]