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 . . .
Sisters Thai, Fairfax
I like the bait-and-switch of this two-sister-led operation. The bait: a cozy tea shop atmosphere, the sort of setting you expect to sip a pot of tea and nibble scones and flip the pages of a home remodeling magazine. The switch comes when you order. This kitchen delivers a punch. Ask for it Thai hot, and it will come out Thai hot. The even better news is that the kitchen doesn’t just ladle on the finger peppers; it works with surprising focus and clarity.
Mi Cuba Cafe, DC
This tiny cafe, on Park Rd. in Columbia Heights, makes the best picadillo I’ve had in a long, long time — with the right amount of olives in the mix, and, more vitally important, the perfect soft texture. Good rice and plantains, too. And finding a restaurant in the thick of DC that can turn out a good, hearty meal for 2 in the range of $35 is pretty close to miraculous.
Little Ricky’s, DC
This lively, art-strewn Cuban cafe acts as a bookend to Menomale on Brookland’s main drag. Both places have the pulse of more populous, better-serviced neighborhoods, and manage to communicate a simple sophistication without much effort. The cooking is not just the hearty homeyness we expect of Cuban restaurants; there’s an unexpected finesse, too. (And — what’s this? — sauteed zucchini and onions on the plates: who ever heard of a Cuban restaurant serving vegetables?) Among the must-orders: the masas de puerco, twice-cooked hunks of pork that rival the rich lusciousness of perfect barbecue.
Mari Vanna, DC
Most restaurants begin with an aha! moment, and for this import from Moscow (with locations also in London and New York) I imagine that moment must have happened something like this: “What we do is, we make a hip place for trendy young Russians to go and eat and drink, with exposed brick walls and cocktail creations and lots of noise, but at the same time we make them pine for Mother Russia, with doilies on the tables and a guy sweeping through the dining room playing folk tunes on the accordion and babushka furniture and little babushka purses to stuff the check into at the end.” Service the night I was in was a mess; I can’t remember a meal in the last couple of years in which more went wrong. And our first courses were hardly diverting: a beet salad was salty, and a smoked fish platter was uneven. But then came the pelmeni (tortellini-like bundles of tender pasta stuffed with well-seasoned veal and served with heavy sour cream) and a fabulous rendition of chicken tabaka — a Georgian specialty, in which the bird is cooked under a weight in a heavy cast skillet; it came with fingerling potatoes and a sour cream-and-dill sauce. We finished with more sour cream — spooned onto our sweetened blinis, along with good cherry preserves — and waddled out into the night.
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.
THE WONDERS OF JOE’S NOODLE HOUSE:
Recently a friend took me to experience the wonders of Joes Noodle House. My tastebuds still tingle with delight in memory of those delightful szechuan peppercorns.
Any other places you would recommend frequenting for a similar pepper fix?
Right up the street, actually — north on 355, aka Rockville Pike, until you hit the Rockville Town Center area.
The place I’m talking about is not in Rockville Town Center, it’s right near it. Sichuan Jin River.
And I recommend it highly — more highly than Joe’s, which I like, but which in recent years has been pretty uneven across its 200-some dishes.
Further up 355, there’s China Jade, which is another good spot to experience that heat and tingle of real Szechuan.
If you don’t mind a road trip, the best in the region is Peter Chang’s China Cafe, in Richmond. Especially if the master is in. Note to Chang-heads: The chef will be opening a new location closer to home, in Fredericksburg, in May.
Re: GRILLMARX, IN OLNEY:
A shout out to Grillmarx in Olney:
I enjoy a good veggie burger but it must be one of the more disheartening things to order. Anything from starchy and mushy patties, claims of house-made when it is clearly not that, to bland and insipid. But still, I try.
I had the best veggie burger I have ever had at Grillmarx for lunch yesterday. It was textured and flavorful, grilled perfectly, complemented beautifully with a soft fresh bun, chipotle mayo, and a great salad with their blue cheese dressing. I keep thinking about it and want another right now.
Sure, at $13 it isn’t cheap, but it was just great. Can’t wait to get back and try some of their other dishes.
Good going, Grillmarx!
I agree with you — a veggie burger is often such a pitiable thing. I have veg friends who say, What are you talking about? There are so many good ones out there now. To which I say: where? Most have the texture of a McDonald’s hash brown cake, but with the strange, insistent seasoning of that spice-happy kid who worked at the food co-op in college.
I will gladly throw my support behind anybody who can do a good veggie burger.
Thanks for writing in with the tip.
What makes this all the more impressive, is that Grillmarks is a steakhouse, a genre of restaurant not known for innovation, let alone caring about the needs of those who don’t eat meat.
Re: THE CHARLESTON, IN BALTIMORE:
HI Todd –
First of all, I have been a silent lurker on your weekly chat for some time and am a Washingtonian subscriber, and just wanted to express to you how much I enjoy your work, and appreciate your honesty, integrity and insight. I have had many a fabulous meal after reading your reviews, never disappointed.
My favorite piece of yours was an article you wrote in the magazine about experiences at meals with your kid – I’m a father of a 5-year old and not ashamed to say the article brought me to tears.
I have been meaning to ask about Charleston in Baltimore – the Cindy Wolf flagship. I am a huge fan, been there probably a dozen times, and always had a terrific meal/experience. I wonder why it is not included as a Top 100 restaurant. There are other Baltimore restaurants on the list (Pabu) so it can’t be location. Cindy Wolf was nominated for James Beard if I’m not mistaken, so seemingly for that reason alone, I would expect some recognition.
Is it the food, the experience, or some other reason why it doesn’t make your list? Just curious…. Again thanks for all you do.
First of all, thank you for saying all the things you did about my work. I appreciate it, and hope I can persuade you, somehow, to not be a “silent lurker” in the future.
Your question is a good one. The answer is that it has much more to do with Pabu and Woodberry Kitchen than it has to do with Charleston.
Our feeling was that both those places offer an experience that is not so common in DC, and that those experiences are worth sharing with our readers. Charleston is a good restaurant; but what it does is not very different from what a fair number of DC restaurants do.
PIZZA IN D.C.:
I’ve been having a major pizza craving and on a hunt to find some of the best pizza in DC. Places I’ve enjoyed so far– Pizzoli’s and district of pi.
Other places I’ve brainstormed from reviews or your past recommendations- Menomale, 2Amy’s, comet ping pong, and matchbox.
What am I missing? Are there better less hyped up places to get some quality pizza in the city? Where would you go for a pizza craving?
I don’t recommend Matchbox; it’s fine if you’re in striking distance.
Can’t recommend Comet, either, after my most recent experience.
Actually, come to think of it, I’ve had a lot of not-great pizza lately. Also on the not-recommended list: 2 Amys; H & Pizza (which got off to a good start, but I had two pies this weekend and the crusts were soft and tasteless); and Seventh Hill (why, oh, why did they put my basil on before not after, resulting in heaps of char and ash on my finished pie?)
My recs: Pete’s New Haven Style Pizza, which is not on your list; Menomale, which is; the plain tomato and the white clam at Haven, in Bethesda; and — definitely worth a drive, since it’s the best pizza in the area — Vin 909 Winecafe, in Annapolis.
Re: GBD — NEW, OFF DUPONT CIRCLE:
I write with a report on GBD, the latest doughnuts and fried chicken place in Dupont Circle. (By the way, what’s with the trend of three-initials-including-a-G eateries in Dupont? Is a fro-yo place called YGT coming next?)
At about 1:30 on a weekday the atmosphere at GBD was friendly though the staff seemed a little wet behind the ears (granted the place has been open for a week). Among other things, it would speed things up to list the sauces on the above-the-counter menu so people can choose from them before ordering. I got the “tendy” fried chicken lunch box and the chocolate-filled brioche doughnut. I have a healthy appetite, but in retrospect I was insane to get all this as lunch.
The chicken tenders were sizable but, I am sorry to report, short on flavor. Whatever it is that the best fried chicken makers do to load their meat and skin with yumminess—brining? seasoning?—it wasn’t done here. The tenders were also slightly overfried, though not to the point of being burnt or dry. Say what you will about their contribution to the decline of civilization, I would honestly probably prefer a helping of McNuggets.
The biscuit that came with the tenders had the opposite problem, cooking time-wise: it was softer on the outside than it should have been and not as buttery as I would have liked. The ranch sauce was fine but I got just barely enough to get me through the tendys. The slaw was nicely crunchy and had a slight kick to it.
But then came the doughnut. A lot of the options were enticing but I couldn’t say no to the chocolate-filled brioche. I don’t want to know how many gym trips it set me back but this was one of the more impressively decadent things I’ve had in a while. It was topped with chocolate frosting and what looked like Cocoa Krispies, and was generously filled with a rich chocolate cream, but still had a hole in the middle (unlike, say, a Boston creme from Dunkin Donuts). This was a high-density, high-volume dessert that came after a substantial main course, and yet I still finished that sucker in under three minutes.
This was at the tail end of lunchtime, so I can only imagine how good it would have been when it was warm right out of the fryer. And at $2.75, it was more frugal than a treat from any of the local cupcakeries.
I don’t want to psychologize, but I get the feeling that, given their creativity and quality, the doughnuts are the real passion of the GBD crew while the chicken is a way to keep the lights on. I’d certainly go back for a doughnut on days when the rest of my meal is, say, a few bean sprouts. But for fried chicken, they need to raise their game or my go-to loyalty for casual, high-quality, high-calorie protein in the neighborhood will remain with Shake Shack.
One more note: the bar near the front of GBD had an inviting self-serve pitcher of water and large plastic cups. I love this setup, as opposed to the usual eye-rolling or clueless panic that ensues when you ask for a cup of water at many takeout places. Whatever marginal loss of paid drinks GBD incurs by making the water readily available and visible, it makes up for with goodwill. Please keep the water pitcher!
So, to recap: Chicken, nay; donuts, yay; and thank goodness for the free pitcher of water.
Thanks for the report; your description of the donut, I am going to guess, has made at least half of the people on here ravenous. Including me.
I don’t think you’re wrong to “psychologize,” if that’s even the right word here. The donuts are the handiwork of Tiffany MacIsaac, one of the best pastry chefs in the city. I’ve sampled 7 or 8 of them; they’re terrific; I’d eat one every day if I could.
Charging $2.75 for a donut made by someone who knows everything there probably is to know about donut-making is not a rip-off. And actually, compared to what a lot of cupcake places are putting out — mediocre cupcakes globbed with 500 calories worth of frosting — it’s a downright deal.
I think making good fried chicken in a format like this is harder than making good donuts. It’s got to be irresistible like fast-food fried chicken, while not resorting to the amped-up techniques of the fast-food joints (sugar water injections, etc.) and using better, fresher ingredients. Tall order for chef Kyle Bailey.
CLYDE’S COMING TO CLIFTON?:
Drove through Clifton, VA and there is a new restaurant under construction across the Railroad tracks from Trummer’s.
One of logos on some of the paperwork on the windows appeared to be the Clyde’s corporate logo? Its a major renovation with walls being torn down and new ones built? have you heard anything Todd?
I just got off the phone with Maureen Hirsch, the director of marketing for the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, who says:
The chief focus of the company right now, Hirsch says, is the Columbia location, which is undergoing a massive, $5 million renovation.
“We’re maxed out at 14 places right now,” Hirsch added.
BEST CHEAP SUSHI IN DC?:
Where can I find the best Sushi (for a reasonable price) in the DC/NOVA area?
Well, it’s not a bargain restaurant by any means, but you can eat not-too-expensively at Sushi Taro at lunch with the $12.95 lunch bento.
It comes with tempura, some sashimi, miso and rice.The neat thing is for a quarter, you can add extra nigiri.
For bargain-rate sushi across the board, I’d suggest Kotobuki, in DC’s Palisades.
PIZZA, CONT. :
Don’t forget DaMarco in Bethesda, nice thin crust, neopolitan style pizza with 00 flour and high quality ingredients, also available at Happy hour for $5.5 (margarita)
Nope, didn’t forget it; don’t like it.
What I did forget, was Il Canale, in Georgetown. And Mia’s Pizzas, in Bethesda.
I don’t really have a question, but wanted to share my experience from the front lines of DC’s latest culinary fad.
I am one for two in actually obtaining a donut at GBD, because they ran out of donuts around noon on their first Sunday after opening.
The cashier was even nice enough to make an announcement letting everyone know this—after we had been in their (glacially slow) line for 10 minutes. Because, seriously, they only have one register. I guess they decided to skip “fast” and go straight to “casual”—how long does it take to ring up a donut and some chicken? This is not a rhetorical question. It turns out that the answer is “quite a while.”
If I were inclined towards conspiracy, I would say they were deliberately creating a backup to hype their product. Okay, I think they are deliberately creating a backup to hype their product.
And that product needs some hyping, because it doesn’t exactly stand on its own merits. The donut itself was unmemorable—a devil’s food with caramel glaze contraption that was dry and not very chocolaty. It did not seem particularly fresh. I expected better from the Birch & Barley folks.
Thanks for that nicely detailed front-line report …
Speaking of “deliberately creating a backup to hype their product,” have you popped by the new Le Diplomate, on 14th St., restaurateur Steven Starr’s first foray into the DC market?
Lot of empty two-tops and other tables last week even as the line stretched out the door.
And I neglected to follow up on this in the previous GBD poster’s report — the number of all-letter restaurants we have now.
BLT. DGS. GBD.
Better, I guess, than that other trend — of naming a restaurant for the street number it occupies.
Other restaurant naming fads include:
A chef’s guiltily naming the place after the kids he doesn’t get to see enough because he’s always at his restaurant.
And naming the place after something the chef or restaurateur uncovered in his travels to research the place, something so obscure no one can possibly know how to pronounce it.
RESTAURANTS AND PRICES:
DC’s restaurant scene for normal people has exploded over the years, but I noticed that the prices are still on the high range. Are there places that are low-to-mid-range that are still comfortable, stylish with decent food?
Places like Mandu are coming to mind where food is consistently under or around $20/person before tax, tip and drinks. Other places seem more accessible at first glance, but usually end up in the $30+ range just for food, which is getting in the high range for me. Do you have any suggestions for delicious but sensible places that are priced for repeated visits?
Do you have a car? Or easy access to public transportation?
Because the places you’re looking for are not, for the most part, in the city. Or if they are, like Mandu, they are easily eclipsed by something better and more interesting in Virginia or Maryland.
I didn’t write “the suburbs,” because I don’t think that term is all that useful anymore. Arlington, Wheaton, Hyattsville, Silver Spring are all more urban than Cleveland Park, Tenleytown, etc.
The strength of DC’s scene is in its sprawl. In the fact you have a place like the Korean-Cajun Mokomandy in Sterling, a restaurant that would fit right into Mt. Vernon Square, for instance. Mokomandy is not exactly bargain eats, but it’s exactly what you’re talking about — a stylish and comfortable place where two can eat for $65-70 with (good, interesting) drinks.
Maryland and Virginia are full of spots like this. Well, not exactly like this; there’s nothing quite like Mokomandy. But you get my idea.
In the city, the natural inclination is to look to places like Cork and Jaleo and 2 Amys. But small plates adds up quickly, and even if you’re trying to be careful you’re often left staring at a bill for two that tops $100.
There are places like Boundary Stone, in Bloomingdale, that keep their prices low (the better to encourage you to drink) but the menu is thisbig.
It’s a conundrum for the city dweller who doesn’t want to leave the city, but wants to eat well and not bust a budget every week.
Any dining suggestions in the Miami / Fort Lauderdale area? We are open and adventurous but nothing too expensive. Great breakfast places are always nice to find.
Here’s my short list:
Trendy/foodie: Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink; Pubbelly; Pubbelly Sushi; DB Bistro Moderne (the Miami outpost of the Daniel Boulud restaurant NY)
Peruvian: CVI.CHE 105 and Sabor a Peru
Cuban: Villa Habana (full service) and Tinto y Cafe (coffee and sandwiches)
PIZZA IN DC, CONT.:
Have you tried Wiseguy NY pizza yet?
I think it’s really quite good. Better than Pete’s, which has interesting toppings but I think the crust is so tough it’s hard to chew sometimes.
Agree that Matchbox isn’t anything special and I haven’t been in 2 Amys for years, since it can be such a hassle to deal with.
Haven’t eaten at Wiseguy yet, no. I did poke my head in there after a recent, unsatisfying (but filling) lunch at The Carving Room next door.
I will say — and many of you, I hope, will understand exactly what I’m talking about — but the smell was spot-on. They have really nailed that NY pizza-by-the-slice smell. Unless they’re spraying it into the atmosphere, they’re doing something right.
As far as 2 Amys goes — I love eating there. I just don’t look forward to the pizzas these days. But the little plates are fantastic. The thing to do, is to not think of it as a pizza place anymore. Think of it as a casual Italian restaurant. In that sense, it’s the best of its kind in the city.
SZECHUAN DINING, CONT.:
A follow up for you then. I will confess to one of the orders that arrived to the table being kung pao chicken…probably not the most szechuan dish on the menu. Any memorable dishes you recommend seeking out for us to try?
If I’m eating Szechuan, I’m zeroing in on these dishes:
— ma po tofu
— cumin chicken or, if it’s Peter Chang’s, fish (his cumin fish is one of the great dishes you can find within two or so hours of DC)
— dan dan noodles
— steamed or braised fish with cabbage and peppers
— cucumbers served cold with garlic and peppers
If you want to explore, I’ll add another couple of spots for you. In Virginia — Hong Kong Palace, in Falls Church, and Mala Tang, in Arlington. To go along with Sichuan Jin River, China Jade and Joe’s Noodle House, all in Rockville.
MIAMI DINING, CONT.:
Miami is my old hood.
Highly recommend Scarpetta at the Fountainbleau and they also have Gotham Bar and Steak by Aflred Portale and don’t forget Michelle Bernstein’s place Michy’s very good food there too. Also, the bourbon steak down there is putting out some good food. Joe’s stone crab too.
Good list, albeit heavy on heavy-hitters.
Not to criticize, but if the chatter’s looking for more range, the list I posted has places up and down the price scale.
A GOOD SEAFOOD PLACE FOR AN UPCOMING BIRTHDAY?:
It’s my husband’s birthday coming up and I am looking for a good seafood place to treat him to dinner. In the past we have done Kinkead’s, Passionfish, and Black Salt.
Do you have any other recommendations? I am open to anywhere in the DC Metro area.
Well, there’s Ancora, which is Bob Kinkead’s new roost, at the Watergate.
There’s Oceanaire, which feels kind of corporate and expense-account, and comes across as a steakhouse with fish instead of steak.
And don’t forget about the cozy, intimate Pesce, on P St., where the menu is dictated by what fish, seafood and produce the kitchen sources. It’s uneven, is the thing. It can be great, and leave you convinced that it belongs in the top-rank of mid-level restaurants in the city. And it can also be eh, and leave you wondering why you paid so much money for an ordinary meal.
If you’re open-minded on the question, I’d encourage you to look into Pabu, in Baltimore. No, technically speaking, it’s not a seafood restaurant, but the quality of the product is as high as, if not higher than, most places that do a lot of seafood and fish. I’ve had exceptional sushi and sashimi there.
It’s worth the drive, and it’s worth the splurge.
And the sake list is long and interesting, easily the best I’ve seen on the East Coast.
PIZZA IN DC, CONT.:
Have you tried Pomodoro’s (Pizza, Pasta, and More)?
This is the best pizza I’ve had in the area, and I’ve lived here almost 14 years, from NY, NJ area.
Order the Supreme Combo pizza. So delicious.
But I’m putting it at the top of my list. Who can look askance at a rec like that?
I agree your list does have more range. I like mentioning the places in the fountainbleau because it is more like a one stop shop in my opinion.
Nice private resort, with private beach, good restaurants albeit from “celebrity chefs”, which I was skeptical of at first, but was suprised by the quality.
Also, if they are yonger in age they can eat dinner and moozy on over to LIV which is located in the fountainbleau and dance the night away, where as I was fast asleep by midnight!
I like moozy better than mosey.
Sounds like a dance move. Do the moozy!
Thanks for writing.
Lunch calls, everyone. Gotta moozy.
Thanks for all the questions, comments, tips, speculations, and reports from the front. And thanks for joining me for a couple of hours this morning and early afternoon …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]