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
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
* The Red Hen, DC
It’s a simple-sounding recipe — finesse on the plate, warmth from the staff, character in the room — but precious few restaurants pull it off. This one does, with an almost effortless aplomb. I’ve dined here three times in the past month, and with the exception of a couple of dishes (notably a hen that could use some black pepper), everything on ex-Proof cook Michael Friedman’s modern Italian menu has been either good or very good. In the latter category: a fantastic dish of sweetbreads, polenta, bacon and a fried egg that combines the soothing pleasures of a simple Southern breakfast with the rusticky charms of a good French bistro. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this Bloomingdale restaurant the surprise of the Spring season. As a matter of fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it’s the best restaurant to debut in DC this year.
Le Grenier, DC
Call it the Anti-Le Diplomate. On H St., not 14th St., and the space is far from the great, glittering sound-stage that is Le Dip; it’s quirky, kind of intimate, and feels organic and urban in a way that Le Dip does not. I’ve been twice, now, and have liked a good bit of what’s coming out of Thierry Sanchez’s kitchen. H
is vol au vent, for instance. Who does vol au vent anymore? you think. But then you take your fork and attack that flaky, buttery shell spilling over with diced sweetbreads in a tarragon-flecked cognac cream sauce and you think: Why should a dish like this be relegated to the far sidelines? Just because it’s rich and heavy? Doesn’t stop pork belly and a whole slew of pig-centric plates that have been playing for years on area menus. The cooking is, generally, earthier and funkier than Le Diplomate’s, and very much in keeping with the sort of offbeat bistros you find in and around Paris. Seasonality, for instance, is not a matter of minimal concern; it’s a matter of no concern. Even as temperatures have flirted with 90, the menu abounds in rich, hearty fare. This determinedly rear-guard approach might not appeal to the diet-conscious crowds that swarm Le Diplomate, but it shouldn’t put you off if you’re a fan of French bistro cooking. Do what I’ve done, and order a second glass of wine. What else to get? There’s a good ham and cheese galette topped with a runny egg. A good mushroom and brie tart. A good blood sausage with noodle-like spaetzle and apples. Great desserts, including a variety of crepes (crepes Suzette among them) and a fantastic rendition of profiteroles, drenched with an addictive dark chocolate sauce.
Tutto Bene: Bolivian Menu, Arlington / Saturday and Sunday
Here’s what you do: go for lunch on the weekends, and ask for the Bolivian menu. It’s a modest document, but nearly everything on it is rewarding — especially the superb salteñas (slightly sweet football-shaped turnovers that are baked every morning to a pie crust-doneness and stuffed with a zesty chicken or beef stew). You could make a meal of these alone, but then you’d miss out on the fantastic sopa de mani (a rich peanut soup) and the chorizo with oiled rice and a good salad.
Banh Mi DC Sandwich, Falls Church
I’ve spent the past few weeks eating banh mi (tough life, I know), and this take-out joint/grocery not in the Eden Center is the clear front runner in a very competitive field. In fact, I think the ham and head cheese combination might be not just the best banh mi in the area, but the best sandwich, period. The baguettes are always warm and crusty, the pickled condiments are always sharp and crunchy, and the sandwich assembly staff has a keen grasp of matters of balance and proportion.
RG’s BBQ Cafe, Laurel
I previously noted that the ribs had come off too easily from the bone. Problem solved. The last batch I had were fantastic — as good as ribs can be when they are not cooked outdoors for hours over an open pit. The pork has the requisite lusciousness and the sauce is a pitch-perfect balance of tanginess, sweetness and heat. That sauce is so addicting, you probably will end up forgiving the drier patches of an otherwise tasty smoked chicken and want to either pour it over everything else or even, as my friend said, drink it plain. The sides are good: baked beans that taste of slow cooking, a not-too-sweet corn bread that gets an extra something from a short stint on the grill before serving, and sharp, clean-tasting collards among others. The man behind the operation is Robert Gadsby, whom Washingtonians may remember from his time at Mussel Bar in Bethesda. He left after Mussel Bar received a 0-star review from The Post. He seems to have made the most of his exile.
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.
* new this week
FINALLY MADE IT OVER TO FISHNET, IN COLLEGE PARK:
Finally made it over to Fishnet on Saturday for a late lunch. And glad that I did.
I went with the Spanish Mackerel sandwich. Perfectly cooked with a light char from the grill. I think it is an underappreciate fish and not one that I see a lot on area menus. Meaty, good texture, and succulent when cooked well. The handcut fries were also very good.
Just wish Fishnet was closer to Van Ness!
I think I speak for all of those who live within striking distance of this place when I say: Ha. Hands off. You have plenty to keep you occupied right in your backyard.
I’m really glad to see the owner, Ferhat Yalcin, add mackerel. It’s the staple fish, really, of the sandwiches he’s patterning his place after, the balik ekmek that can be found all along the waterfronts in Istanbul.
I hear a lot of customers, when I’m there, talk about how fresh the fish is. It is, it’s fresh. But it’s not just fresh fish. It’s also high-quality fish. Those two, together, are what make the place what it is.
Good morning, everyone. I hope you had a great weekend.
Looking forward to hearing your eating and cooking adventures. Fire away.
A quick note, though, before we begin. I want to thank my family for a very special Father’s Day, which began with a nice brunch (and “nice.” for me is high praise, since most of the time I would rather start the day light with a bowl of oatmeal and coffee and maybe some toast) and ended with barbecue. Barbecue always makes me think of my father, and also always makes me think of Father’s Day …
I know you answer a question about Philly like every other week. But I am taking a rare trip without kids to see an old friend.
We are staying near Rittenhouse Square area- do you have any restaurant/bar recommendations within walking distance?
Thanks so much!!
It’s a great part of town to be in. And a great part of town to dine.
I’d try for reservations right this minute at any of these three places: Vernick Food & Drink (contemporary American), Tria (Italian), and Maytson (asmall plates BYOB).
You’ll have a great time.
Drop back on and let us all know the hows and whys.
HEADING TO RICHMOND FOR THE WEEKEND — WHAT DO YOU RECOMMEND?:
Heading to Richmond for the weekend. After perusing your helpful 15 Great Escapes article, we plan on Edo’s for Saturday dinner and Peter Chang for Sunday lunch.
What options would you recommend for a light Saturday nosh?
Guess what? I’m going to be there this weekend, too. ; )
Your plan of action is a good one. Edo’s is great fun and eminently satisfying. And Peter Chang is Chinese cooking like you’ve never seen before: make sure to get the ma po tofu, the bamboo fish, and the scallion bubble pancake.
For a light lunch, I’d suggest hitting Garnett’s Cafe. It’s a Kendra Feather restaurant. Feather is the owner, also, of The Roosevelt, which I singled out in that column. The Roosevelt is not open for lunch. Garnett’s Cafe is, and the lineup of dishes, I think, is just what you’ll be looking for in between the richness of Edo’s and the feast that’s sure to hit the table at Peter Chang’s.
WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO GO FOR HONG KONG-STYLE DIM SUM THESE DAYS?:
Where is the best place(s) to go for Hong Kong-style dim sum these days (as opposed to the northern version one might find at A&J or the Dumpling House)?
I sometimes go to Hollywood East in Wheaton or to Fortune in Falls Church, but both seem like they are not quite as good as they once were. Is there a new(er) better place?
Not a new place, but given the remarkable change in the cooking — lighter, tighter, brighter — Oriental East, in Silver Spring, certainly feels new these days.
I’ve spoken twice, casually, to the owners, who insist there is no change in the kitchen. But I know as sure as I know anything that this simply isn’t true. The dim sum has gone from being pretty good to pretty damn great, and that’s not an easy leap to make, let me tell you. Especially not with dim sum. And especially not without some new force in the kitchen.
Just to give you one example: the taro dumplings. Most of the time this is a dish to avoid. And I mean — most of the time at dim sum restaurants. The shredded taro that makes up the wrapper of the dumpling is either greasy and soft, or dry and almost dusty in the mouth. The insides are often squishy, and sometimes undercooked. Not here. This one, the last time I had it, was marvelous. Crispy outside, flaky, light, and not at all gooey inside, with a filling that was not just surprisingly flavorful but also kept its integrity. It takes real skill to bring something like this off.
And that’s just one of the dishes I loved on a recent visit.
This, right now, is the place to be on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Though if you don’t get there half an hour early, you may wait a while, a very long while.
Re: THE RED HEN — WE AGREE!:
Delighted to see your new post at the top on Red Hen. My husband and I went on Friday night and just loved it.
Like you said: staff, atmosphere, food.. all lovely and just slightly different than any other recent opening. Excellent fresh pastas and crostinis. I can’t even put my finger on it but I didn’t feel like I was even in DC.
My husband actually out of the blue remarked last night, “Is it bad that I want to go back to Red Hen, like this weekend?”
Kudos to the team there.
Thanks for writing in.
I want to add that I think it’s really hard to create a restaurant in which the diner feels that you’re not trying too hard to make an impression, and yet knows, with every detail, that you’ve made the effort.
This is a quality that can’t be bottled, and I doubt that it can be taught, or at any rate taught in a way that someone can simply heed the teachings and replicate that exact same feel in the room.
There are restaurants with great food, and yet they don’t make you feel this way. And there are restaurants with only pretty good food that do.
I’m not saying that all restaurants should aspire to this. Only that I think it’s admirable.
Certain restaurants should absolutely aspire to this; the casual mid-level restaurants that we are seeing more and more now in the city all should go and take a long look at The Red Hen and try to understand what it does and why.
BANNING KIDS FROM RESTAURANTS:
Dying to know what you think of The Sushi Bar in Del Ray, which as you know has banned all children younger than 18.
We have been discussing this for several days now in my household, my husband, and my daughter, 12, and I. I think it’s a ploy for attention, personally, and find it abominable that any restaurant would enforce this. What say you?
It’s hard to think that it’s not a ploy to get attention, given that it has gotten attention, and not a little but a lot of it. WTOP, the blogs, etc.
Which doesn’t mean that it was a ploy, only that it’s hard to think that it wasn’t.
I don’t like the ban, and I say that not as the father of two small children. I say that as a food critic. I greatly dislike the trend of many restaurants at many levels to exclude. One of the great things, to me, about restaurants is that you don’t have to be someone powerful or important to get in.
Now, having said that, I am not so naive as to think that restaurants don’t self-select. They do it all the time. They charge high prices — to keep out the so-called riff raff. They serve esoteric food — to alienate the average diner. They play their music loud and very consciously create a club-like vibe — to say “No trespassing” to anyone over 35.
If The Sushi Bar wanted to keep out kids — keep out kids and not attract attention for keeping out kids — then there are things it could have done to achieve that goal. You don’t see kids, for instance, at Sushi Taro or Makoto.
Yes, those are top-tier sushi restaurant. Expensive restaurants. The Sushi Bar, clearly, is not aiming for that kind of experience. It’s aiming for something more casual and workaday. Something more, shall we say, inclusive. And yet it won’t admit people under the age of 18.
As I said, I think one of the great things about a restaurant is, theoretically, that you find all of the society under one roof. All colors, all ages, families and singles, people of all backgrounds. Dining in this kind of an environment is enormously exciting to me. A restaurant, of all places, should not be an agent for turning people away.
GOING TO BOURBON STEAK TONIGHT FOR THE FIRST TIME TO CELEBRATE A SPECIAL ANNIVERSARY:
Thanks for these great weekly chats! Always something to look forward to on a Tuesday.
I am going to Bourbon Steak tonight for the first time to celebrate a special anniversary. Do you have any tips or recommendations on what to order and how to make the most of this experience? Not sure my budget will allow me to go back for awhile!
Thanks so much!
First of all, a very happy anniversary to you and your someone. I hope you have a wonderful meal to celebrate.
My advice is simple. Do not fill up on the french fries that come gratis to the table, nor the truffle rolls that are the other big indulgent freebie.
Easy to say, hard to do. Those rolls are irresistible. And the fries and the dips are addicting. But you’ll want to save yourself for the actual, um, food.
So, pick a few fries and dip them, split a roll, and then stop. And ask the staff kindly if you may have the rest to take home with you.
Good luck tonight. Drop back on next week and let us know how things turned out …
DOING A BELATED FATHER’S DAY DINNER THIS WEEKEND — BUT MY FATHER HATES GOING INTO D.C.:
We’re doing a belated Father’s Day dinner this weekend and I’d like to take my dad out for a nice steak. The catch is, he hates going into D.C. and would like something easily driveable in the Maryland suburbs.
Anything good come to mind?
Yes. Ray’s the Classics, on Colesville Rd. in Silver Spring, right across the street from the AFI Silver Theatre.
Very good hand-trimmed steaks. Good sides. Good simple desserts. And don’t miss the Maryland crab soup.
ONE NIGHT IN LEESBURG FOR A RELAXING, SPA-CENTERED GETAWAY — WHERE DO I DINE?:
I’m heading to Lansdowne Resort (in Leesburg) with my husband in a couple of weeks for a one-night, relaxing spa getaway. Do you have any dinner recommendations in Leesburg?
I like The Wine Kitchen, on King St., for small plates and the chance to roam up and down a decently varied wine list that offers the chance of sampling a varietal without committing to a 6 oz. glass.
Enjoy your getaway!
And I hope that when you return, de-stressed and ready to face the world again, that you’ll let us know what it was like.
A NICE, RELATIVELY QUIET RESTAURANT IN WHICH TO LEARN THE SEX OF OUR NEW BABY:
My wife and I are finding out the sex of our baby on Friday, June 28th.
We’ve decided to ask the doctor’s office write the sex on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope. We then plan on opening the envelope together at a nice dinner that night.
Do you have a suggestion for a nice, relatively quiet restaurant that might be a good place to go for this special event?
Wow. Not something you hear of everyday.
Or any day.
I can safely say I’ve never had a request like this before.
The place that comes to mind is Tom Powers’s Corduroy, which, talk about self-selecting, is one of the quietest dining rooms in the city. Or any city.
It’s a restaurant that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. I’m blaming myself when I say that. It’s easy to take for granted its consistency and dependability. I love Powers’s soups. I love the sturdy classicism underpinning nearly all of his plates. I mentioned the quiet of the dining room; the plates are quiet, too. A very particular quiet, that comes of mastery.
I hope you have a terrific meal. And congratulations.
DINING ON 14TH STREET:
I am the poster who wrote in about re-naming 14th st nw “Little Italy.” I was not able to join the chat last week (in real time) but saw that you answered my comment, which I appreciate.
I think 14th st is a great street for restaurants and it is one of my favorites as well as one of the top areas for dining in the District, though cheap eats is not what comes to mind when I think of 14th street. I do lament when I see 6 new places open up with a clean slate and they end up approximating each other by all doing some close variation of Italian – and not the kind of Italian that I swoon over.
I love that 14th street is a great restaurant/eating area of the city and that’s why I wrote in to say what’s actually missing from this great dining area is good Indian food. I’m thinking of Ashok Bajaj, for the best. Of course, if there are other really good contenders, terrific.
My point is that to make 14th street even better, fill in the gap, and stop filling the gaps with redundancy of good enough but not soaring.
It’s true, if you live in the neighborhood or are thinking of 14th street as an evening destination, you can walk a few blocks to other parts of the city. However, if it’s your neighborhood, part of the wonderful convenience is being able to have choices and good choices are based on variety not just multiples of the same or similar-themed thing. If I’m making 14th street my destination, then I think if there is enough variety for me to go there or consider some place else. I think 14th street is a great street and I want it to be even better.
I would not count on seeing much other than what you’re already seeing.
I don’t think, for instance, that you’ll be seeing the kind of place that we used to think of as fine dining opening up. That’s not in vogue, anyway, and it certainly is not going to be in demand in an area that is flooded with people in their 20s and early 30s.
Italian is hot, and so there’s going to be a lot more of it. Mid-level small plates, also hot; more to come.
“Good enough but not soaring” = big money. Most people who go out to eat are demanding, yes, but not THAT demanding when it comes to the food. Most people. And yes, that goes even for young sophisticates. Most people are perfectly content with good but not soaring. They will happily open their wallets to have it.
“Soaring”? That costs. A restaurateur needs a top-flight chef, or a talented sous chef who is gunning to make his name, and even then there are no guarantees. Time and again we see restaurants with talented chefs and high-profile staffs and big-money investors behind them — and they don’t deliver on the plate.
And, really, think about it — how many restaurants on any street, in any neighborhood, qualify as “soaring”?
HOW IS THE SUSHI BAR ENFORCING ITS “NO KIDS” POLICY?:
Just curious –
How is the Sushi Bar enforcing the 18 year old cut off? Do they card?
Also, if the point of this is to exclude children because they can be disruptive, 18 strikes me as an awfully high cutoff. Most kids can sit through a meal without disturbing other patrons at least by junior high school.
Carding! Yes. Love it.
“May vee see your papers!”
I think 18 is awfully high, too — I think 12 is high — and agree with you that most kids of junior high age can sit through a meal without being a disruption.
But I don’t think that’s the point of this little high-profile experiment in banning. I think the idea is — not to see the kids in the first place. Whether they are a disruption or not. The mere fact of a kid in the dining room, I guess the thinking goes, makes every meal a family night-out style excursion.
You know, there are many, many restaurants where people can go to get away from children, if that’s their goal. Most good restaurants, actually.
The Sushi Bar would probably answer: Not most restaurants in Del Ray.
They can do what they want, surely. It’s their right.
I just think, as I said, that they could have done IT without doing IT, if they wanted.
I also think that if a restaurant is going to enforce a ban like this, that it had better be above reproach in every other aspect of the dining experience.
GOOD SHORT-TERM POLICY, BAD LONG-TERM POLICY:
The Sushi Bar’s policy maybe a good short term policy but its a bad long term policy.
One day the buzz will die and they will need a more diverse customer base. Banning families w/kids is never a good idea. I am guessing The Sushi bar will be gone in 6mos or less.
I keep coming back to the idea of self-selecting. Masa, in NYC, doesn’t ban children, but you don’t see any children there, either. Too expensive.
I guess I’m saying I don’t mind this kind of self-selection. Which is, yes, exclusionary, and I talked up top about how restaurants are great because they are essentially inclusive. It’s tricky. Maybe what it comes down to for me is policy, to putting things out there in no uncertain terms as — dun dun dun DUN — law. I don’t like bans of any kind. I don’t like first-class sections on airplanes. I don’t like gated communities. Masa is not a place for the people, but there are no bars and no policies.
And it also needs to be said: Masa is amazing. Exquisite. If we’re playing keep out, in any realm, then I want the most lavish experience possible. Not something I could get at any neighborhood restaurant, just minus one of the elements that makes the neighborhood, the neighborhood.
Gotta run. Lunch awaits.
Let’s keep talking about this. Interesting stuff. Drop me a note if you have further thoughts. I’ll be interested in hearing your perspective, and promise to respond in kind. firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for the great back and forth today, everyone. I hope you had as good a time as I did.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]