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 . . . * Wiseguy, DC The smell: it’s perfect. Whatever the proprietors of this small, gangster-saluting shop have done to recreate that classic New York pizzeria smell, they succeeded brilliantly. That smell of garlic and yeast and baking bread and aromatic char makes you hungry from the moment you walk in. Makes you want to order one of everything. This is a by-the-slice operation, for the most part, and the slices are mostly rewarding (the fewer the toppings, the better), with excellent thin crusts that crisp up nicely with a few minutes in the brick oven after you place your order. The best of the bunch is the Margherita, a loaded-up alternative to the spare Neapolitan version and a pie that belongs in the conversation of best in the city. East Dumpling House, Rockville A quick-serve dumpling joint that’s as small as its menu is long. Three dozen dumplings are on offer, with lamb, beef, chicken, and shrimp all serving as anchors for the fillings. The wrappers are more thick than thin, but they’re supple enough that they don’t draw focus. The size of the tiny kitchen would seem to argue against their being made long in advance, frozen, then dumped into a steamer when the time comes; the bright freshness of the fillings would seem to argue against that, too. Make sure to supplement your order with small dishes of garlicky, peppery cucumbers or shredded tofu skin with cilantro. 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. 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. * new this week ………..………………………………………………………………….
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
* Wiseguy, DC
The smell: it’s perfect. Whatever the proprietors of this small, gangster-saluting shop have done to recreate that classic New York pizzeria smell, they succeeded brilliantly. That smell of garlic and yeast and baking bread and aromatic char makes you hungry from the moment you walk in. Makes you want to order one of everything. This is a by-the-slice operation, for the most part, and the slices are mostly rewarding (the fewer the toppings, the better), with excellent thin crusts that crisp up nicely with a few minutes in the brick oven after you place your order. The best of the bunch is the Margherita, a loaded-up alternative to the spare Neapolitan version and a pie that belongs in the conversation of best in the city.
East Dumpling House, Rockville
A quick-serve dumpling joint that’s as small as its menu is long. Three dozen dumplings are on offer, with lamb, beef, chicken, and shrimp all serving as anchors for the fillings. The wrappers are more thick than thin, but they’re supple enough that they don’t draw focus. The size of the tiny kitchen would seem to argue against their being made long in advance, frozen, then dumped into a steamer when the time comes; the bright freshness of the fillings would seem to argue against that, too. Make sure to supplement your order with small dishes of garlicky, peppery cucumbers or shredded tofu skin with cilantro.
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.
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.
* new this week
Re: EAST DUMPLING HOUSE — NEW, IN ROCKVILLE:
Saw that you enjoyed the dumplings at the new East Dumpling House. How are the dumplings compared to Mama’s (China Bistro)?
I’ve been a fan of Mama’s for years and their dumplings have stayed consistently fantastic, with the special pork and dill filled ones for those of us that are from northern China that you don’t find anywhere else!
Any lamb dumplings at East Dumpling House? I heard the fillings are rather small.
I haven’t eaten there enough to do a proper comparison. And of course if I were to do a proper comparison, I would want to go back to Mama’s right after or right before.
They do have lamb, and I want to say they do have lamb and dill. I don’t remember the filling as being small.
The wrappers are on the thicker side, like Mama’s, although perhaps a little thicker even than Mama’s. They’re not heavy, though, and that’s the thing. They give. They’re pliant.
The lineup of dumplings is longer than Mama’s. There’re about three dozen kinds. Though most are variations on a theme. So: shrimp with chive, beef with chive, lamb with chive, pork with chive, etc.
Good morning, everyone. What a gray, rainy day. Happy to be spending it here, in the alway-perfect (ha) online, with all of you.
Congratulations are in order — to Johnny Monis and the team at Komi for winning a James Beard Award last night in the category, Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic.
Fire away with your questions, your comments, your tips, your rants, your musings, your anything at all …
“THE MEANING OF LOCAL”:
GREAT article on local eating! Really eye opening. Thank you.
Thanks so much!
It’s kind of funny to say, but in a sense I had been working on that piece for about five years. Not writing it, but thinking about it, making notes about it, interacting with all of you on here about it, etc. And then I spent a couple of months talking to more than 3 dozen food world people and letting their thoughts and ideas take me to new places. The writing actually came pretty quickly.
Here’s the piece for those of you who haven’t seen it.
CHICAGO CHEAP EATS?:
You’ve given me great recommendations for Rehoboth and NYC cheap dining. I’m heading to chicago over memorial day weekend.
Any recommendations for cheap(ish) meals in Chicago for food I can’t get well-made or get at all in DC? Thanks.
It’s a great time of year to be in Chicago. It’s not brutally cold all the time, and yet the summer heat hasn’t hit either. And baseball’s in full swing.
It’s also a fantastic city for eating cheaply.
I would think pizza and Mexican food, primarily.
For the latter: Pequod, Great Lakes and Lou Malnati. Lou Malnati is the very definition of old-school deep dish, Chicago’s great contribution to pizza culture. Great Lakes is a contemporary spot, big into sourcing of its toppings.
You probably know the name Rick Bayless, who made a name with a restaurant called Topolabampo. He has a cheaper, more casual restaurant called Xoco, and it’s what a cheaper, more casual alternative ought to be. Go.
Also: Staropolska for Polish cooking (pierogis, pancakes, and schnitzels) and Hot Doug’s for gourmet hot dogs (go for the one with foie gras).
Have a great time …
THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON:
Finally, earned my way to dining at The Inn at Little Washington.
I made a reservation for next month and plan on taking the day off and heading out there and spending the day in the area before dinner that evening. I requested to have dessert and coffee outside on the porch.
I am truly excited for it!
Dessert and coffee on the porch is smart thinking.
And it also would be smart thinking to book a room for the night. That’s a helluva meal to drive home from, and I’m not even talking about the prospect of hitting the roads after a couple of drinks. It’s just a long and sumptuously rich meal, the kind that leaves you feeling besotted even if you have only had a few sips of wine.
Beyond that is the fact that it’s a strange sort of vertigo to go from that degree of pampering and luxury and escape to hitting the roads and negotiating traffic, etc.
It’s expensive, for sure, to stay overnight out there. “Little” Washington is plenty big city when it comes to pricing a room. I’m just saying it’s worth considering.
Have a great time, and let’s hear all about how your first meal there turns out.
ISO: A FUN BIRTHDAY DINNER DINNER:
Todd, it is my daughter’s 1st birthday and we are planning a day of fun for her… any restaurant recs for a “fun” 1 year old dinner in nova or DC?
Fun for her, or fun for you (having her along)?
I mean, I would think she’d have fun just about anywhere that isn’t fine dining. Am I wrong? She’s 1, she’s along for the ride, she won’t even know it’s her birthday.
If it were my daughter, I’d think about something like Pizzeria Paradiso or Comet, both pizza places, or someplace where there’s a lot going on and she could lose herself in the vibe (and maybe see other kids if you happen to get there early, which you should shoot for) — Evening Star Cafe in Old Town, Old Ebbitt Grill downtown.
If the night is more about having fun and having her along for that fun, then I’d think about Central, which, surprisingly, is pretty good with kids early in the evening.
Re: LE DIPLOMATE — NEW, OFF LOGAN CIRCLE:
Have you been to Le Diplomate yet?
I went Sunday for an early dinner–already packed at 5. Given all the hype, I was ready for a let down, but we actually had a rather nice dinner.
I was shocked that their bread basket, which was really quite good, was not something you pay extra for but a freebie! Increasingly it seems like restaurants charge for these things–like Mexican restaurants that now charge for chips and salsa. It was a nice old-fashioned touch to get something of such quality gratis.
Have I been to Le Diplomate?
Hasn’t all of DC?
Anyway, it feels like it. Mucho buzz already, and the place is still wet behind its expensive and delicately fashioned ears.
Take a look at what I wrote in this space two weeks ago: https://www.washingtonian.com/chats/kliman/tuesday-april-23-at-11-am.php
Those breads, by the way, are the single best thing I ate in my two visits. Which, no, is not meant to be damning of the food. It’s meant to tell you how highly I think of the breads here. They’re amazing.
WHAT’S YOUR DREAM ROTATIONAL DINNER IN D.C.?:
I love rotational dinners (one person’s house for apps, another for entrees, another for dessert, etc.). If you were to do that in DC restaurants, where would you go??
Given the richness that I have planned for courses two and three, I’d want to start light, so: a selection of sashimi at Sushi Taro, along with a few small dishes — seaweed salads, sunomono, etc.
For entrees, I’d say CityZen. Their beef dish of the moment and a side of their mini-Parker House rolls.
Dessert would be between Central or Adour (soon to be closed and relaunched as Decanter, sans oversight from Alain Ducasse). Depends whether I’m in the mood for an amazing Napoleon or mille feuille, or a wonderful baba au rhum.
Re: TAVIRA, IN CHEVY CHASE:
We enjoyed a thoroughly pleasant meal at Tavira over the weekend.
With its odd basement location, white tablecloths, and uniformed waiters, the place had an almost throwback to a different era feel to it (in a good way!). Entering the dining room we had a “so this is what restaurants used to look like” feeling, especially when compared to the less formal, stripped down esthetic of many restaurants opening today.
The grilled whole calamari slathered in lemon, butter, garlic, and parsley was very good and the bread quickly disappeared mopping up the sauce. The fried cod fritters were fine. Bacalhau à Rebôlo (Roasted salted cod, with clams, chouriço, onions, chickpeas and collard green) was good, although the salt cod was still a tad bit overly salty and probably need a few more hours in a water bath. The grilled trout came with the same lemon butter sauce as the calamari, and therefore delicious. The chocolate mousse cured our post-dinner chocolate craving.
Dinner was fueled by a couple bottles of reasonably priced vinho verde and a glass of port. Tavira clearly has a core of regulars, and being just up the road from Van Ness we plan on returning.
Thanks for the report.
“Thoroughly pleasant evening” is an interesting way of summing things up.
Doesn’t exactly sell a person on the experience, but neither is it dismissive. You’d go if someone took you. And if someone paid, well, then, you’d never utter a peep of complaint. If you were the one footing the expense, however, and you were looking for a place to go and have a good meal with friends or family, you might not get around to it for a while. A long while.
That phrase, “thoroughly pleasant evening,” reminds me of a handbill I saw in New York about 20 years ago. I’ve never forgotten it. It was a handbill for a new theater piece, and on it was an “endorsement” from the New York Times, which as we all know does not hand out praise liberally (ha). And this endorsement hardly sounded like an endorsement — I’m sure the review itself was not. The quoted phrase was: “savagely amusing.”
I remember thinking: what the hell does that mean?
One thing I knew for sure it did not mean, was funny. You don’t say something is savagely amusing if it’s funny. You say it’s funny if it’s funny. Or, if you’re the Times: “wonderfully witty.”
But it did not say wonderfully witty.
Noel Coward was all I could come up with; he was the only one I could call to mind to fit the phrase “savagely amusing.” And I found him neither savage nor amusing, much less savagely amusing.
You know when someone rips off a good one at a dinner party but no one is prepared to laugh — because they’re too tense, too mindful of their circumstance — and instead someone says, without even a smile: “That’s funny”?
That’s savagely amusing.
No one wants to be amused, when they could be entertained.
And they surely don’t want to be savagely amused.
Re: DAIKAYA — NEW, IN PENN QUARTER:
Finally made it to Daikaya for dinner. It was good, but I think I like Izakaya Seki better (runs and hides in a corner).
I mean, for all the buzz, it was great. The blowfish special was delicious. Loved the wasabi octopus, but I feel like Izakaya Seki just wowed me more. And maybe it’s because Izakaya Seki was the first time I’ve had those flavors, but I’ve been back there a bunch of times since and it still amazes me. I also really enjoyed the fresh fish at Izakaya Seki, which was lacking at Daikaya.
I would agree with you, and that’s not to say I don’t enjoy Daikaya.
I do enjoy it. I’ve been three times. Eaten some good food. Drunk some good drink.
One difference, and it’s a big difference, is that Izakaya Seki hardly appears to be trying.
Daikaya is saying: Dude, let me show you all the awesome funky cool stuff we got going over here. Seki is saying: We hope you know where to find us. And we hope that when you do come, you enjoy the food we enjoy.
It’s “here are the discoveries we want to show you” vs. “please, come and discover for yourself.”
I also find Seki to be the more exciting place to eat.
But having said all that, I want to say that it’s great to have both in the city right now, and that each has its place.
In recent years, chicken has made such a big comeback. I remember a time when I wouldn’t dare order the chicken dish on a menu, but that’s completely changed.
A couple weeks ago, I had the best fried chicken at Pearl Dive. Have you tried it? This wkd, for mother’s day I’m going to indulge in Nana’s Sunday Dinner at Majestic which is…fried chicken!!
Roast chicken dishes have been wonderful too at so many restaurants lately. Were these dishes always around and we (I) just neglected them or have chefs started putting more care into making them? Do you have some more chicken recs? GBD is on my list of course…Family Meal too, but it’s a bit of a hike.
I love the chicken at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace. We featured it recently as a best in the city, and have written about many times since the place opened.
Long before Jeff Black put it on the menu, he was serving it to his employees. It was a very popular staff meal for many years.
The secret is that the chicken is first braised then fried. Guarantees that the meat is really, really moist.
Family Meal in Frederick also does a fantastic fried chicken.
Also good: Levi’s Port Cafe and Bon Chon.
The new Del Campo has a terrific pollo a la brasa on the menu. With excellent fried yucca. But — oof — the price. $24.
You can find good, cheaper versions at Sardi’s, Super Chicken, and El Pollo Rico.
I’m not coming up with any great roast chickens. I didn’t like the one at Range. I had a very decent one not long ago at Central …
ROTATIONAL DINNERS, CONT.:
Regarding rotational dinners at restaurants, is that something people actually do, or was it more a question along the lines of “if you could have dinner with any celebrity, who would it be”? Not trying to be being snarky, I’m genuinely curious if anyone has actually tried this – I would think it would present some pretty big logistical challenges, but maybe I’m wrong.
It’s not that common, no.
Unless the dinner takes place in a small bounded area.
I know people who’ve done a dinner like this, usually referred to as a progressive dinner (which makes it sound as if the courses get better and better), in Penn Quarter. They’ll start at Jaleo, say, and move on to Rosa Mexicano, then finish with dessert at Cafe du Parc.
Re: WISEGUYS, AT 3RD & H STS. NW:
Glad to see you adding Wiseguys to your list of “where you’re eating” as it is some of the best pizza in the city I have had . I don’t think it gets much publicity because it’s not some fancy overpriced place with “gourmet” pizza with $12 cocktails.
Last week you were asking about El Tapatio and why no one goes there. I wouldn’t say I’ve been a regular but I have been 3 times in the last 6 months. Some of the best tacos around! I’ve also had their pozele and fajitas and they were good. I can only guess it’s not more crowded for a variety of reasons mostly dealing with the location and how the place looks.
I also think that because English is not spoken by the people who work there it scares some people off. I’ve got to say though the people there serving and eating are pretty accommodating and me and my friend even were toasted by some other patron last time we ate there. More people should really take a chance on it.
I really love that Margherita at Wiseguys.
Worth going just for that.
And as for what I asked about on last week’s chat, the restaurant in question was actually La Placita, not El Tapatio.
But El Tapatio is also in Little Mexico. (Bigger menu. Placita only does tacos and tamales.)
It’s funny — I asked who had been, and how often, and in the last week via email I heard from many of you. (Thank you for all those emails!) You assured me that, yes, you did go, and enjoyed it, and would probably go more often if it weren’t so far.
One emailer said that he would go more often if he felt more comfortable there; that he said he often got looks, being the only non-Latino in the dining room. I appreciate that candor. (Thank you for speaking your mind!)
I think that touches on something important to a lot of people. Not just comfort on the plate, but comfort in the room, whatever that might be. Personally, it’s never an issue with me. I often find that I am the outsider at a place, and unless I am treated with outright disdain, it’s never a bother. And in fact, I often enjoy it — the sense of peering into another world, traveling someplace I am not expected to go. But I understand that most don’t. Even among my friends, there is sometimes a disappointment (unspoken, but detectable) when I say that I am taking them out to a divey ethnic spot far from downtown. It’s not what they were hoping for from an evening out. They were hoping for cocktails, waves of service, food that is intricate splendid.
BIRTHDAY DINNER w/ FRIENDS: UPDATE:
A while back I asked about good spots for a family style birthday dinner with friends.
I wound up getting in touch with Dean Gold from Dino, and we were able to put together a great meal. The menu was based around a few specific dishes I knew we wanted, plus some suggestions he made based on seasonality. We brought a few bottles of wine, and ordered the rest out of his wine book, which I spent the better part of a week poring over. It was a great meal, and Dean was a true host.
Now my birthday is coming up, so it’s going to be suckling pig at Boqueria. Not bad!
I am glad to hear that Dean was such a consummate host, especially in the planning of the event. No surprise at all, there.
And I would not be at all surprised, either, to learn that Dean put you up to dropping a note about his restaurant on this chat!
CHICAGO CHEAP EATS, CONT.:
Hi Todd —
Just wanted to note that Great Lake pizza in Chicago is now, unfortunately, closed.
Also, as a native Chicagoan, I wanted to second your recommendation for Hot Dougs. There will be a line out the door and around the block, but it is well worth it.
Nothing like it, is there?
Thinking about one of those great dogs now …
Too bad to hear about Great Lake; thanks for letting me know.
Re: “THOROUGHLY PLEASANT MEAL”:
Your interrpretation of “thoroughly pleasant meal” is pretty accurate.
The food for the most part was solid to good, but didn’t reach excellent. We had a Groupon so the cost was gentlier on the wallet than full price.
At that price point there are other restaurants we would go to first, but if we want something close by that is more dressy than the usual neighborhood spots we go to than we would return for a second outing. After having driven past Tavira probably 100 times, we were glad to dine there and thus enjoyed a thoroughly pleasant meal. Sometimes that is all you need on a Saturday night!
And also proximity is sometimes everything. If you had driven 40-45 minutes, it might not have been all you needed on a Saturday night. You might have needed it to be “savagely pleasant.” ; )
Speaking of which, I wonder what would “savagely delicious” would be? Dinner at the Dahmer Cafe? The Donner Pass Bistro?
RE: Roast Chicken …
Has Palena fallen off your radar? While I’ve had some inconsistencies there since the expansion I still find the chicken to be divine.
An oversight, truly.
Where are the other great roast chickens … ?
Speaking of Chicago and good pizza, I was curious if anyone in the DC area does a great Chicago-style pizza.
I actually prefer it to its NY counterpart (though maybe not the New Haven style) but have hardly seen it on a menu besides at Armand’s.
District of Pi does Chicago-style pizza. If you’ve been to Chicago and eaten the pizzas there, it’ll most likely make you pine for what you can get there.
Would love to see more people doing this style in the area.
It’s not everybody’s thing, but I love it. I also love the communal aspect, the fact that you really need a group of people to share a large.
“THOROUGHLY PLEASANT EVENING,” CONT.:
Given my druthers, I’d rather go to a divey ethnic spot with you!
And I, you.
(Anybody see “The Last Tycoon”?
(Script by Harold Pinter, I believe. Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel. Anyway, there’s a great scene where the studio mogul becomes furious with the awful, mannered language of a love scene.
(The man tells the woman he loves her. The woman says, “And I, you.”
Thanks for the great back and forth today, everyone. And for all the questions and tips and comments and reports from the field, etc.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]