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
CATERING AND RESTAURANTS:
Do your reviews ever account for a restaurant’s catering and large group planning? I ask because I was planning a friend’s party and one well-regarded restaurant would not even return my phone calls or emails inquiring about availability. I won’t say the place but it happens to be a steakhouse near Capitol Hill whose name sounds a little like Parlie Chalmer.
It’s one thing not to have availability, but it seems pretty poor form not to respond at all to inquiries.
That’s strange they didn’t return your call. I wonder why.
We may find out before our time is up today. Stay tuned.
Do I ever account for catering in my reviews? Never. Only what I experience in the restaurant itself.
And — to broaden the discussion a little — only what I experience. Meaning, I don’t factor in at all things I hear from friends or strangers. I can only write what I see and hear and feel and taste and touch. My opinions are not a composite of “what’s out there.” I don’t “aggregate.”
Now, if I do hear a lot of the same things about a place from different people, then I may return to a restaurant and see for myself. But that last part is the crucial part — the seeing for myself.
Good morning, everyone. Beautiful day today, crisp, cool, the kind of Spring day I (at least) cannot get enough of.
A question to get us started today …
I was dining out with a friend recently, and he complained of the current restaurant tendency toward a sort of obfuscation of presentation. Printing menus full of terms and ingredients that he claims most people have no idea of. Waiters swinging by tables and rattling off descriptions that presume a high degree of cooking knowledge or industry knowledge and make dining out seem like an in-joke.
For instance: a cucumber confit at Le Diplomate. He didn’t know what a confit was. He guessed — incorrectly. I told him what it was, and said that actually a cucumber could not be confited, since there was no fat to cook it in. What’s it doing there on the menu, then? he wondered.
He also bristled, a couple of nights later, when a waiter spoke about __ several times in his “presentation” without identifying who that was. I said it was the chef. My friend said: Yeah, but you know this stuff. The rest of us don’t.
Toward the end of our meal, the waiter swung by and rattled off a lengthy series of after-dinner drinks. Really rattled them off. My friend said he didn’t understand a single word.
“THOROUGHLY PLEASANT,” CONT.:
Todd, sometimes “thoroughly pleasant” is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Did it scale to dizzying heights? Well, no. But it was solid. Decent. Maybe you were made to feel welcome by a really nice front house staff. Maybe service found that level of comfort between being formal and familiar. Maybe everything just tasted right- not outstanding, but something that is enjoyable.
To be honest, I look for those dining out experiences way more than anything else; with the economy being the way it is, it’s still tough to go out to the fancier places, but I don’t totally feel like Applebees all the time either (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but). Anyway, I wish there were more places that did “thoroughly pleasant”.
But I do think you’re characterizing with a bit too broad of a brush. “Thoroughly pleasant” isn’t a place that is more good than outstanding on the plate. It’s a place that is “more than decent” on the plate. Not quite enjoyable, but somewhere between satisfactory and mildly satisfying.
I think you are correct in describing the quality of the service — poised between formal and familiar.
The problem is that in this area the kind of experience described above is generally going to cost a lot. $120 for two, or more. Bethesda is full of places like this. One star places, or one-and-a-half star places that are “thoroughly pleasant” but style themselves — at least when it comes to pricing — as “wonderfully rewarding.”
“Thoroughly pleasant” is one thing at $55 for two. It’s entirely another when you get past double digits.
Re: TAQUERIA LA PLACITA — IN BLADENSBURG / LITTLE MEXICO, :
Having been to Taqueria La Placita many times and loving everything about it, I feel compelled to weigh in on this one.
Someone told me once they had never been because “it was in a bad area.” As I drive down Kenilworth to Edmonston, although run down, the area seems like any other. The baseball diamond with kids playing, the little shops, grocers, and people going about their business is all normal. As you pull up to TLP, you do realize it will be a different experience. I always park right by the grass between the plaza and the apartment building and routinely see a group of little kids playing there. It is not like there are gangs positioned near by! I would be more cautious heading to the 14th & U Street area!
Depending on what time you arrive, Spanish speaking families, a line of day laborers out the door or some young teenagers pulling up on bikes may greet you. Whichever it is, the FEAST of authentic Mexican food, Jarritos sodas, a blaring TV, interesting knick knacks adorning the counter and a religious wall mural will be there.
Isn’t this the same M.O. that drives the Toki insanity? Inexpensive, authentic and a hole-in-the-wall kind of place with intriguing aspects? It would stand to reason that TLP would be booming also with the multiple publication endorsements and the people like you saying “GO!”.
And if you like Mexican Conchas, then a stop at the bakery next door is a must! So where is everybody? Could it be the perception of the area? Many other successful restaurants dispel that notion. Maybe the fact that there have been no more than 4 white skinned people eating in the place anytime I have been? Not easily metro accessible? No alcohol served? I actually lend this one more creedence than the others.
Well, in my cynical, speculative opinion, I think it as simple as it is just not an “it” place. There is no social media presence. They are not tweeting up a storm. People are not “checking-in” for all to see. EaterDC is not praising it. The bloggers are not covering it. It does not carry the social status symbol. The “foodies” do not go into work or get on social media and get the reaction they would for going to Le Diplomate, Daikaya or the newest hyped up place. And that is what it is about these days. Even for teenagers. I took my son to eat recently and he was Instagramming his food and where we were. A few nights later we were out and I asked why the obligatory Instragram food photos were not being taken. At 13yo he actually told me “nobody knows about this place and my friends don’t come here.” WHAT!? So hype begets hype? Yes. Shallow? Yes. I think this applies for the “grown-ups” too!
I believe it is as simple as that. Taqueria La Placita is just not cool. But to those lucky of us to know the truth, it is. And I am fine with being able to go, order food and get a table without waiting in line for some ridiculous amount of time. Thank you to all the “foodies” for that. This is all my opinion of course. Many will disagree and think I am wrong. I would love to hear another theory, because I could ramble on with other restaurant specifics and instances but if you get it, you get it…not that there is anything wrong with it!
On another note, the Taco Bar at the gas station by Washingtonian Center in MoCo, is pretty good too if you just want some good food and think traveling to PG is crossing the globe.
So much meaty stuff here to respond to …
Thanks so much for taking the time to write this. I appreciate it.
It’s fascinating, for sure. At least it is for me and you and maybe a few others. And I don’t think it’s as simple as any one thing.
You bring up Toki Underground, which I don’t know that I, personally, would have thought was a relevant comparison in a discussion like this, but it’s certainly an interesting comparison to make. The difference is that one “inexpensive, authentic and hole in the wall” is very, very stylized and the other is not. The one offers the thrill of taking a walk on the wild side. The other is actually a walk on the wild side.
And Prince George’s County is not DC. Most people in the DC area know nothing about the county (though that doesn’t stop them from talking about it). When people speak about something in Montgomery County, a place of business, a restaurant, invariably they name the city: Rockville, say, or Bethesda. When people speak about something happening in Prince George’s County — and this goes for media as well — invariably they forgo the city name. It’s just — Prince George’s County. The broad brush. Distinctions don’t matter. It’s all the same, all the same …
There are food world people who have been to La Placita. I have taken them there. They seemed to enjoy it. But did they return? I don’t think any of them did. There are a lot of people who regard places like this as a one-time shot, interesting to know about, maybe, but not something you would make a part of any regular dining rotation. A shame.
PALENA CAFE AND ROCKETING PRICES:
We had dinner at Palena Cafe this weekend, and the value of this supposedly more approachable restaurant has gone WAAAAY down.
In particular I ordered ravioli: $17 for literally 3 pieces. It was ridiculous. We were also rushed to order, rushed to get our check and ended up being in and out in well under an hour (2 courses). Is this what you’ve been hearing about the place lately?
I ate at Palena Cafe about a month ago, a dinner for two. Not a big dinner. Three plates, three glasses of wine, a sparkling water, no dessert. And the bill came to something like $130.
Was the food good? It was. Some of it was excellent. Some was merely good.
And yes, like you, I found the portions … careful, I would say. In some cases, I would say stinting.
Clearly the place is not the amazing deal it used to be, back when it occupied the front room at Palena and most of the items on the brief menu could be had for $10. And there was nothing careful about the portioning, only about the cooking, which had an elegance and precision that made so many people fall in love with Frank Ruta’s cooking.
LUNCH MENU DEALS:
Love reading your chat.
It’s my birthday in a few weeks on a weekday, and my plan is to take the day off and go out for a nice lunch before heading to the Nationals game at night.
I was looking for someplace with a great lunch option, either a good set-menu deal or a lunch menu that is more moderately priced than their dinner menu. So far Fiola and Proof are on my list of possibilities, but I’m not totally sold. Where would you recommend?
Those are both terrific spots for what you’re looking for — same great cooking and at much less than what you’d pay at night.
What an excellent plan, by the way. It really does sound to me like the perfect way to catch a game — you don’t have to worry about eating in a rush then dashing out to make the first pitch, and can do both things, the restaurant and the game, with equal emphasis.
Hope Fiola or Proof come through for you, and hope the Nats begin to round into form soon …
FOLLOWING UP: GOOD ROAST CHICKENS:
ust had a great one at place of the moment Le Diplomate
Well, I liked the one I had there. I wouldn’t call it great, though.
Not much there that I would call great — the stupendous breads, the insanely eggy creme brulee, the tete de veau …
A lot that I would call good.
And almost nothing that I would call bad or mediocre.
That last point is the most important point. This is a restaurant that is very engineered — from the atmospheric, stage-set space on down to the cuisine — and very, very smart.
TAQUERIA LA PLACITA, CONT.:
I really think it’s the location/not being particularly metro accessible that keeps most people away from Taqueria La Placita.
I don’t doubt there’s a certain portion of the population that doesn’t want to dine with day laborers or doesn’t think it’s “cool enough.” But the place has gotten lots of publicity on Washingtonian, and on other “trendy” sites, too – a quick google search shows it praised by Young & Hungry, Eater, DMV Dining, etc.
I think one of the most pervading aspects of snobbery in DC is towards all things “suburban,” even if that term really shouldn’t be applied to places like Hyattsville or Arlington, etc., when you’re truly talking about the greater DC area – people are just unwilling to leave the city, period, to their own detriment.
Over and above the snobbery you talk about is the irrational fear of Prince George’s.
It’s not simply a matter of location. There are restaurants that suffer from bad locations — a hard to find stripmall, a street off the beaten path. This isn’t that.
Your larger point about suburban and urban is a good one. The notion of urban is changing. This area is an interesting case study in that. Hyattsville, Arlington, Silver Spring, Wheaton — all are more conventionally urban than, say, Palisades or Friendship Heights, which have much more in common with we think of when we think of suburbs.
TIRED OF LOUD, ANNOYING HIPSTER MUSIC:
hey — do you ever recommend restaurants according to what kind of music they play?
I get sick of hearing loud, annoying hipster music when I’m eating. I want some place that plays more mellow stuff — like Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” where do you recommend?
I was in New York two weekends ago, and ended up late one night at the bar of a popular, critically acclaimed restaurant for a couple of small plates and a drink.
I couldn’t believe the music. Luther Vandross. Keith Sweat. Jeffrey Osborne. Sting. Michael Jackson.
I took a look around the bar: Everyone was in their late 40s or 50s.
It was a clear choice by management to play this stuff, a clear outreach to people of that generation. Which means that it was a clear snub of people in their 20s and early 30s. I was surprised. Either management knows it can get enough of these people in the door, or it is willing to take its chances.
Anyway, you’re not the first person who has complained about the music in restaurants lately. It’s gotten more assertive, less backgroundy, and, especially at the new class of small ambitious independents, sounds that trend toward those under 35 are more and more finding their way into the mix.
I can’t come up with a place that plays things like Fleetwood Mac. It seems to be that either places play loud or not-background music from bands of the past 5 years in an effort to court the under 35s, or they don’t play music at all, in which case they seem to be saying that all are welcome.
Todd, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to chat. Question about pricing in DC restaurants.
I’ve found that it’s been somewhat inconsistent or erratic in some of the newly-opened restaurants. Pricing is all over the map. Have you noticed this? Strip steaks at $38 but full-meal plates around $20. Do you know why? Is it to attract all level of patrons, the ones who are willing or don’t mind paying too much for one thing but to keep the peace for patrons who know what something should cost or knows a better value? Thanks so much
The example you mentioned makes me think of Del Campo.
$44 for an 18 oz. ribeye. $52 for a 12 oz. Wagyu skirt steak. (But they come with a sauce of your choice! And a side dish!)
At the same time, you can get a Peruvian chicken for $24 with yucca.
I think that what you’re seeing is restaurants trying to have it both ways. Not the inexpensive cafe up front or downstairs and the more formal, more expensive restaurant in the back or upstairs — but both, together, at the same time. The haves and the have-lesses.
This is the second question about pricing today. If I’ve been astonished at some of the prices I’m seeing, I know some of the rest of you have to be, too. Pricing and portioning. The one going up, the one going down.
More and more, I’m seeing places that present themselves as neighborhood spots, or as casual alternatives to fine dining, charging $27 for an entree. It’s not uncommon to see some of them charging $30, though they are all very, very careful not to go beyond that line.
But $30 for a supposedly mid-level place? Without the touches that make dining out, dining out? The quality stemware, the veteran and knowledgeable staff, the pastry chef on the premises?
I dined several months ago at a new place, a small indie place, and while much of the food was good, the table had a problem with balance the whole night, the place was freezing, and we were thisclose to the next table. And the bill, including an entree that cost $28, was over $120 for two.
“HIPNESS” AND RESTAURANT TERMINOLOGY:
While “hipness” may play a factor in people not going to Taqueria La Placita, I think it’s mostly due to its location. While I don’t think of it as a bad area, it does take some time to get out there from DC, and I couldn’t imagine making the effort without a car.
It’s also not really a “destination” neighborhood for a night out. Usually when I go over to the Atlas District (for say Toki Underground) I plan on having dinner and then going out to the bars afterwards.
I only really have time to check out hole in the walls and smaller ethnic places in the suburbs on the weekends, and even then it’s usually for lunch as it’s near impossible to find parking around my place on weekend nights. Because of that constraint, I have a huge list of places I’d like to visit. Therefore, even though I’ve been to Taqueria La Placita a few times and have loved it every time, there are other places I’d like to go to before returning there.
As far as your friend’s issue with restaurant’s terminology, I can sympathize to a certain extent. I’ve only been really into food for the past couple of years and I’m still trying to catch up on all the lingo. I try to look up unfamiliar items online before I go or on a smart phone when I’m in the restaurant, but sometimes a little more explanation or guidance would be nice. It’s a fine line though as you don’t want to annoy or alienate experienced diners.
What my friend wonders is, do the restaurants that do this, do this knowingly, or do they really not have any real idea of how they come across to someone who is not in the food world?
Is it, in other words, a show-offiness to dazzle the initiated and prove to them that, hey, we are in the now and can give you an in the now experience, or is it simply a case of people being so subsumed with their world, so in love with all its minutiae and terms, that they can’t get beyond it and explain it to the layman (who, in this case, only wants to eat a nice dinner)?
I wonder, myself.
As for your take on La Placita, fair points. But I still maintain my theory, that an anti-county bias informs a good bit of this.
PRESENTATION / OBFUSCATION:
Re: printing menus full of terms and ingredients…
What your friend describes is akin to my feelings of the overused word, “local” in restaurant descriptions. I see you’ve written an article about this point, so I’ll look forward to reading it.
I’m not sure why restaurants are doing this other than to sound knowledgeable while assuming that many of the diners actually don’t know. When I dine, sometimes someone wonders aloud about a term or ingredient and I’ll know the answer. I guess it’s my thing, I have a decent amount of knowledge about food, ingredients, technique, etc. I am lucky in that way.
It sounds impressive, these descriptions, but it look foolish (as with the specific example with your friend pointing out the problem with cucumber confit). Am wondering if you caught that, too? I find these vacuous terms to be a real bore and makes me question if a restaurant can go beyond serving a mediocre audience well enough to truly becoming a transcendent restaurant – be it in innovation or simplicity. I can’t stand when restaurants or places talk about local but that means that it’s half-way up the coast.
Local has always meant in my yard, at the farm a couple blocks away where I can either pick corn, tomatoes, strawberries myself or pick up produce that was truly just-picked. The awful secret? The prices are reasonable (actually really good) because the produce is actually local and seasonal so instead of charing an arm, a leg, and a cheek for something, it is what so many “gourmet” “specialized” places pretend to do. It is a peeve of mine and I’d honestly rather eat something global instead of gnawing on the pretentiousness (and often false term) of eating local. Eating globally has it’s pros and cons as well. It’s just not fashionable or pretentious to do right now.
I’ve noticed that some restaurants are now going against this grain, and downplaying their local talk. Downplaying the bragging.
The other kind of bragging my friend mentioned, however, continues apace.
I think I mentioned on here some time ago that I was at dinner some months back with a couple, two women, including a woman who eats out about four times a week and lives in New York City. This woman confessed to not knowing a couple of terms on the menu she was then scanning, and I, in the interest of fun, went ahead and read her every dish description that was listed — every cooking term or technique or ingredient the chef thought to mention. Here she was, a smart, reasonably well-traveled woman who was out and about quite a bit, and she had no idea what 19 words were on that menu. 19.
If a person like that is in the dark, then how about the diner who eats out once a week?
Or is the idea to create mystification? Mystification means exotic, means different, means an experience in which you, the business, are in control and can, if it suits you (and it often does) charge more.
BTW, here’s the piece on local you alluded to — “The Meaning of Local,” which appears in the current issue (May) of the magazine:
COUNTY BIAS, CONT.:
I think there’s something to the fear-of-Prince George’s notion.
Look at how so-called “foodie” folks flocked to like La Caraquena, which is in a pretty seedy looking motel, 20 minutes from downtown, or to Bon Chon, which is way-the-heck-out. But you don’t see the same crowds at a place like Henry’s or at Taqueria La Placita.
True, true, true …
And we could add to that list:
Or at Fishnet.
Or at Shagga.
Or at Pho 88.
Or at Pho Thom.
Or at Muffin Man.
Or at Spice 6.
Or at Jerk Hill.
Thanks for writing …
PRICING AND PORTIONS, CONT.:
Azur has some high priced items and the portions do not justify the price.
Thanks for writing in, Naeem. Good to hear from you.
The same could be said of a lot of places in the city these days …
Ugh. Please stop Instagramming food- all it does is make it look like a still from a snuff film from 1977 of a plate of grubby food that’s been behind a refrigerator for a few weeks.
As for the Luther Vandross. Keith Sweat. Jeffrey Osborne. Sting. Michael Jackson playlist: before you mentioned the collective ages of the patrons, I would’ve thought it WAS a hipster bar you went to, and it was just part of being “ironic”. Now get me a PBR tallboy, ASAP.
Yeah, that whole Pabst thing has gotten old, hasn’t it? Har. Har.
And Instagramming food is the worst, isn’t it? I don’t think I’ve seen a single Instagram shot that actually looks halfway appetizing. You’ll come across one, and according to the pic-taker’s caption it’s a “wonderfully delicate preparation” of mussels, clams and a filet of cod under a foaming sea urchin sauce. And it won’t matter. Because it looks like Denny’s.
OBFUSCATION / PRESENTATION, CONT.:
Even worse than restaurants flaunting these terms for the unitiated, certain food writers seem to love to drop French terms, obscure ingredients, and new or unknown cuisines and cooking styles; Amanda Hesser, I’m looking right at you.
It does a disservice to readers by showing just how in the know, how hip they are to what’s going down in the food world, but then again, given the state of newspapers today, I guess nobody cares.
I still say it’s worse to encounter it in a restaurant. But that’s just me. Thanks for chiming in on this …
I think the best food writing explains and examines, as opposed to just riding on the surface and taking things at face value. But again, that’s just me. ; )
Thanks to all of you, today, for the questions and comments and mini-essays and whatnot. I appreciate it.
And I hope we can delve a little more into the subject of obfuscation/obscurity next time. If any of you have any weighty thoughts on the matter or bits of inside knowledge or even just quick little musings, I’d love to hear them.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]