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
Re: AYSE, IN FREDERICK, MD.:
Thanks so much for the recommendation to try Ayse Meze up in Frederick. We drove up this weekend and were quite impressed with the place.
Our server was very knowledgeable about the menu, the patio was perfect on a warm summer night, and the food was fantastic.
We didn’t know where to start, but our server was really helpful and honest about his favorites, how things were prepared, etc. The brussel sprouts and zucchini cakes were amazing – I typically dislike brussel sprouts and I had to restrain myself from licking the plate clean. We ordered from the specials menu (fishermans stew and pork belly) and tried the Turkish cigars.
Everything was wonderful. Even with several rounds of drinks, appetizers, several main different dishes to taste, and desserts, our bill was much lower than what we expected.
Our only complaint was that we didn’t have any room left to try more items on their menu. Just an excuse to go back again soon!
It’s a really nice space to be in on a hot summer afternoon or night. Very cooling.
And yes, that menu is daunting — 87 items, not including the specials list, where many of the best finds are.
By the way: your waiter was not an anomaly; it’s a good staff. I’ve found everyone there to be warm and sincere and engaging.
We’ve talked about this before, debating what it is we like from a waiter or waitress at a restaurant. There is the camp that says: be knowledgeable, be attentive, don’t tell me your name, stay out of the way, anticipate my needs, be invisible.
I’m not in that camp. You go out to eat, you’re going out of your bubble. It’s not dinner at home; you’re not in a pod.
You’re having an interaction, not just with the food on your plate but with the people in the room and the people serving you that food.
That’s not to say that I want shtick — have you dined with us before? May I explain how our menu works? etc. But a recognition that this is a give and take. An exchange. And — ideally — sincerity. Which is so very, very hard to fake.
I have to think that at least some of this perspective derives from my general uneasiness with being waited on, with having things done for me. Porters, bellhops, valets, same thing. People calling me “sir.” That deferential thing. Having someone in a position of subservience.
What do you all look for and want in service? What makes you uncomfortable or squirrelly, even?
THE NEW CHEAP EATS ISSUE:
I love the new Cheap Eats issue (it’s always one of the most exciting days of the year when it comes out), with the tremendous detail on the different cuisines. I especially like that the “guide” doesn’t limit itself to the Cheap Eats dollar limits, but also includes expensive places like Izakaya Seki.
But what’s going to happen to the American “Cheap Eats” restaurants? Will there be a separate list in a future issue? Will there still be a total of 100 “Cheap Eats” when the two lists are combined?
Those are all good questions, and we have a year to figure them out. : )
This idea — essentially, an Ethnic Eats issue — has been brewing for a couple of years. I’m thrilled we were able to do it, finally, and I’m equally thrilled with the way it turned out. Kudos to the whole team at the magazine, Ann, Jessica, Anna, Michael, Scott, Garrett, et. al. I think it’s a really interesting, comprehensive look at the enormous ethno-culinary landscape, which, as we’ve talked about many times, is one of the things that defines eating in this area.
As for American cheap eat restaurants … in this area, that mainly means pizzerias, burger joints and barbecue. They’re pretty much the only sorts of places where you can get relatively inexpensive quote-unquote American food. And we feature these places all the time throughout the year, among them the recent Best of Washington issue.
Incidentally, what does it tell you that the only “American restaurants” that qualify for Cheap Eats in the DC area are pizza, burger and barbecue joints?
To me, it’s a fascinating thing to ponder.
One question that comes to mind is this: why are there so few restaurateurs in the entire DC region able to compete with the prices charged by the so-called ethnic restaurants? In DC, for the most part you either have Modern American restaurants, and can expect to pay $120 for two, or you have chain restaurants and their crummy chain food that costs $40 for two.
Why are there only a handful of American restaurants where you can eat well for $60 for two?
THE CASE AGAINST SMALL PLATES:
I read an article by Neil Irwin against small plates yesterday (for your reference: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/06/28/the-case-against-smal l-plates) and I couldn’t agree more!
Is the small plates trend here to stay in Washington? Please tell me no! I can imagine it is probably helpful, as a food editor, to order small plates to try many things, but what are your thoughts?
The problem isn’t small plates.
The problem is the same problem whenever a trend becomes too trendy.
Not every chef is meant for this kind of small, detailed work. Most aren’t, in fact. Many need a bigger canvas.
With small plates, the flavors really need to pop. The entire point of a small plate is to say to the diner: This looks small, but watch — the flavors are big, bold, explosive.
But there are an awful lot of small plates out there that are just big plates that have been portioned stintingly. They don’t pop. They’re not exciting.
I love small plates. It’s an ideal way to eat. Lots of little tastes, a chance to sample a variety of textures and flavors and smells. A chance to share with others at the table, which is, after all, what eating is about — a communitarian experience, regardless of the neuroses of those cautious, boundary-needing souls among us who don’t want to interact with others, who insist that they have their own dish, and hands off, please.
Dim sum, when it’s good, is one of my favorite ways to spend a weekend morning. A great tapas bar is a glorious way to kill a few hours when the sun goes down.
CHEESEBURGERS AND EXTRA CHARGES:
And now for a local question… How much is too much to add cheese to a burger?
I’m not talking about Sottocenere al tartufo or some cave aged gruyere. Just the regular offerings you’d see at any deli counter.
I ask because I get annoyed every time I order a $14 burger from Black’s Bar and Kitchen and they tack on $2 for a slice of pepper jack. If they built it into the price it wouldn’t annoy me nearly as much. But something about those two extra bucks sticks with me through every bite of the burger, especially when it’s not absolutely perfect.
I’ll bet they figure that if you’re able to pay $14 for a burger, you’re hardly going to miss that additional two bucks for cheese.
$16 for a burger.
For a burger.
And a burger that is not always “absolutely perfect.”
By the way: a burger is a thing to be a tenacious customer about. If it’s not cooked EXACTLY the way you asked, then send it back. If it comes out close, but not what you asked for — send it back a second time.
Personally, I would not settle for anything less than perfect if it’s not a place like Five Guys.
And especially at $16.
Be the pitbull customer. Do not back down.
Ribs, also. If they’re not moist, have them replaced. A lot of the time, rib racks are sitting around, waiting for someone to order them; they get dry. Many places are only too happy to serve you what has been sitting around.
In June, I ordered ribs at the Laurel location of Red, Hot and Blue, the best of the local outlets. They’re using a good quality pork these days, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t sometimes come out dry. Mine did. I sent them back. The second set was fantastic — luscious, blooming pink meat under a beautifully dark, sticky bark. First set, I’d have given them a C -. Second set was an A.
THE NEW CHEAP EATS ISSUE, CONT.:
I really enjoyed this year’s cheap eats issue.
I have even been critical of Washingtonian in the past. I did not find their restaurant reviews or Top lists helpful at all until you started there. I thought the list was full of the same tired places. Washingtonian has REALLY significantly improved over the last several years.
Anyway, it was a very interesting and helpful guide to continually interesting ethnic scene. I loved that you had sidebars about dim sum and Eden Center.
I would have liked the Vietnamese section broken out with lists of the best Vietnamese Delis and the best Pho shops listed separately. There are so many and it is really hard for us, with limited time, to know which ones are really better than the others.
Also, I wish there had been some mention of Saltenas. They are a really special delicacy in this area and have a few great restaurants offering them (Tutto Bene, Pike Pizza).
Finally, I loved the categories you selected. I might have added one more feature of where to get really bizarre and interesting global cuisine (Fillipino, Mayasian, Burmese, Raw Ethiopian, Laotian). Examples of good places are Himalayan Heritage, Karaikudi, Keren, Bangkok Golden (Laos), Abay Market.
Thanks again for the great Cheap Eats Guide.
I’m really glad to hear that you’re enjoying it. Thanks for the feedback.
And just to respond to a couple of things you brought up: there is talk of salteñas, including at Tutto Bene, and Abay, Bangkok Golden, Himalayan Heritage and others are all featured in the package.
By the way, I’m really not crazy about attaching the term “bizarre” to the food of any culture. I think it’s an unfortunate title for Andrew Zimmern’s otherwise interesting TV show.
I know people who think stinky tofu is a great delicacy, while many of us in the West regard it as something of an abomination. Of course, and this is the point, those same lovers of stinky tofu think that Epoisses is an abomination: how could anyone eat that?
As for pho … we sampled a LOT of pho all over the area in the research for this particular issue, and found that the differences among the places were, in general, so slight as to not warrant a separate piece.
One of the things to keep in mind with pho is that, if it’s a good place — and there are a lot of good places — so much depends on when you go. The broth is deeper and richer earlier in the day, around 10:30, 11, and then again in the late afternoon, say, 4:30, just before dinner.
The broth in a bowl of pho is not everything, but it is most things.
SERVERS WHO MAKE ME SQUIRRELLY, CONT.:
Servers that kneel when taking my order. I feel like they are treating me like the pope or something and I should offer my ring for them to kiss.
Usually this is guys- don’t know if the manager is telling them to do this, but please don’t do it! Makes me very uncomfortable.
I’ve seen this.
I want to say that sometimes they do this to a.) take a load off and 2.) give themselves a better chance of hearing the diner amid the infernal white noise of the restaurant.
SERVERS WHO MAKE ME SQUIRRELLY, CONT.:
What makes me squirrelly? How about a waiter approaching our table for the first time, glancing at the wine list sitting alone in the corner and asking, “What wine have you selected for the table?”
Pushiness, as well.
A lot of waiters and waitresses are presumptive like this. The expectation, now, at a lot of upmarket restaurants is that you will begin with a cocktail, continue on with a glass of white wine with your appetizer and then a glass of red wine with your entree.
Thus adding $50 (I’m factoring in tax and tip) to the bill.
JOSE GARCES’S FORAY INTO D.C. …:
jose garces making his way down I-95 http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/the-insider/Garces-opening-in-DC.html#cKUYgIE 2cOm20V7u.01
Woo-hoo: a steakhouse.
This has to be regarded, at the very least, as a mild disappointment.
Garces is a very talented Philadelphia-based chef and businessman. He’s got a Mediterranean spot, a tapas spot, a Mexican spot, and a whiskey bar with snacks. And he decides to come to D.C. and open a steakhouse. An Argentinian steakhouse, but nonetheless a steakhouse.
Out-of-town restaurateurs look at DC these days the way free agents not so long ago looked at Dan Snyder’s Redskins. As a cash machine. A place to make easy money.
They’re not, in the main, coming here to do their really interesting work.
WHAT I VALUE IN SERVICE:
Above all, I value a sense that I am welcome when I dine out. No need to be deferential or to gush. This doesn’t correlate with price or formality.
I didn’t get it when dining at Citronelle and didn’t return. I do get it when dining at a favorite cafe in Alexandria (Aurora Cafe).
Thanks for chiming in.
REHOBOTH BEACH DINING:
Todd, do you ever make it over to the beach to check out restaurants there?
My husband and I just came back from a long weekend in Rehoboth. We had dinner Saturday night at Amuse, which was really quite delicious.
We went for the four-course tasting menu, which isn’t a stated menu (it’s whatever the chef wants to do based on a few questions about likes/dislikes and allergies). What we got resembled a few of the dishes on the night’s menu, but with little twists and a couple of the dishes were completely unique. Loved the honey-paprika paste that accompanied cold lobster, the spicy cold corn soup was fabulous too.
If you’re headed to the shore, I highly recommend it. Do you have any favorites at the beach?
We put out a guide to Rehoboth last year:
In it are a number of spots I like, including Henlopen City Oyster House (for its good raw bar, especially), Casapulla’s South (for great hoagies), Blue Moon, Espuma, and Confucius (yes, a really good Chinese restaurant at the beach).
Amuse had yet to open when I last visited, in order to research that piece. I’ve heard similarly good things, and am eager to go when I return. Thanks for the feedback.
POSTCARD FROM NEW ORLEANS:
First, a thank-you on some terrific recommendations for eating my way through New Orleans.
Most memorable moments included an incredible arugula salad with fried chicken at Herbsaint; the warmth and care (and fantastic duck) of JoAnn Clevenger at Upperline; and my personal favorite meal of the weekend, at Sylvain, where two of us worked our way through 85% of the menu. I still daydream about those few hours. I’m not sure what makes their dining “room” so transcendent, but I certainly felt miles away.
Up next: my boyfriend’s birthday. I recently moved from Capitol Hill to Silver Spring, where he’s been for some time, and I’m trying to find new favorites instead of constantly driving in for my old stand-bys.
Any suggestions on a good upscale place to celebrate in the SS/Bethesda area? We’ll both eat anything. Thanks!
8407 Kitchen + Bar, on Ramsey.
Citified, but comfy. You can go high, or you can go comparatively low, and order something like the excellent burger or a bowl of the killer lamb Bolognese over tagliatelle. Or a little bit of both. And don’t miss Rita Garruba’s always-satisfying desserts.
And I’m so glad to hear my recs worked out so well for you in Nola. Reading your words, I was back in all three spots, if only momentarily.
BURGER CHARGES, CONT.:
Todd, on the subject of burger extras:
Getting the $10 burger at the new Teddy & the Bully Bar with fries (+$3) and cheese (+$2) means a full 50 percent increase in the cost of the burger. And it’s not even a particularly good burger to begin with.
As a friend of mine says: That’s how they get ya.
Add a beer, and then tax and tip, and you’re looking at $30 for a burger, fries and beer.
WHY “AMERICAN” FOOD IN D.C. IS SO EXPENSIVE, CONT.:
Re: “why is no restaurateur in the entire DC region able to compete with the prices charged by the so-called ethnic restaurants?”
This is just rank speculation, but maybe it has something to do with the supply chain. How can a place in the Eden Center sell a Banh Mi out the do for $3.25 where an “American food” restaurant would have trouble getting the same product out the door for twice the price even if they could replicate the ingredients?
They must be paying less for the raw ingredients than your standard burger or BBQ place. I wonder how/why that is. Either that, or they are just satisfied with a considerably less amount of profit than their non-ethnic restaurant competitors.
One thing to consider is that so-called ethnic restaurants are often family restaurants, and can get away with paying less to employees as a result. Hey, that’s what family’s for!
As for paying less for raw ingredients … maybe. But I hope you’re not reflexively equating paying less with inferiority.
If you’ve ever eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant in the Eden Center, you will be struck by the quality and freshness of the produce. Lettuces, herbs — all so green and so fragrant. And of course no one comes around to brag about where they were sourced.
I doubt that that is the case where meats and fishes are concerned, but you never know. And if you’re turning those meats and fishes into pastes and sausages, or treating them to long marinades and then grilling them and giving them that char and smoke, it often does not matter that much.
I wonder if restaurateurs in D.C. think to try doing simple American food like we’re talking about. No tricks. No fancy sourcing. Simple food that is satisfying not because the ingredients are so good, but because the chef turned to his extensive training to make them taste good.
Honestly, I don’t think a place like that could fly in the city proper. Wouldn’t make enough money. But in a neighborhood outside of downtown? Or in a close-in suburb?
No cocktails. Tiny wine list. A few beers. Good, simple food. No self-congratulation.
It’s astonishing, if you really think about it. Astonishing that we have so few places like this in our midst. Ray’s to the Third. Stoney’s. Franklins. Not many others.
Seems to me someone looking for a new idea could come along and put this template into practice and look like a radical.
SMALL PLATES, CONT.:
Regarding small plates, I personally think Chef Dimitri & his Cava Mezze team continue to hit it out of the park.
I am partial to the Rockville location, and by your definition of what small plates should be-Cava Mezze consistently delivers.
And finally, you are always praising the level of reader/chatter here and the in-depth subject matter brought to the table. Ha, get it, table? Anyways, I would just like to say that as far as YOU go, the level of “chat” you provide is second to none.
Rather than snark and one-liners like *some* area chats….you make people that want to intelligently and thoroughly discuss their chosen subjects come here because you are a true conversationalist. You care. You show interest. In this forum you successfully convey your enjoyment of it all and never seem like you’re in a rush to move on.
Spending most of my life, professionally as well as personally in restaurants and the food world, I appreciate and look forward to your take on things. All too often I find myself wondering “What would Todd Kliman think?” WWTKT.
You are a 100% bona fide journalist and Washington, DC is lucky to have you.
The check is in the mail. ; )
But seriously … I’m — well, I’m speechless is what I am. Wow. Thank you.
I would say I sincerely hope that the chats are, for others, what you say they are for you. That’s exactly what I’m striving for on here every week: a conversation. A give and take. Or as close to one as you can get in a medium like this. I wish there were a way to get closer.
Thank you so much, MoCo. You made my day.
WHAT I VALUE IN SERVICE, CONT.:
On the service question, Komi manages to balance attentiveness, friendliness, and information (which is big there) quite well.
We went for the first time this weekend for a special occasion. The food was incredible (cherry gazpacho foie gras, the roasted goat), but the staff was equally good. Not pushy, just chatty enough, helpful when needed, answered lots of questions.
Is it too cynical to think that you’re paying in part for not being cajoled or guilted into more wine/drinks, into not being continually upsold? I think we were asked once if we wanted more to drink, and that was that.
I think Komi’s staff is the standard for dining in the city.
Of course, it helps a great deal that there is one menu for all, and that the room is small.
Still, a staff has to be hired, and it has to be drilled, and it has to engage with diners night after night and in a way that suggests it all hasn’t been done thousands of times before.
It’s remarkable what this staff does.
I think it’s also extraordinarily difficult to be hyper-attentive to a diner’s needs, correct in form at all times, decorous and polite in manner, and still bring warmth and sincerity and humor and a sense of wonder to the proceedings.
BURGER CHARGES, CONT.:
It is amazing how much some “high end” burgers cost these days.
Last year, for my blog, I wrote about a bunch of different burgers around the city, with a mix of fast casual and finer options. I was surprised to find that one that’s often considered really great (and a personal favorite)–the Palena cheeseburger–was actually far from the most expensive being offered, with Bourbon Steak and Central topping the list at $19 each.
And here’s what’s also true: you don’t need to pay that much to get something good.
SPECIAL OCCASION RESTAURANT NEEDED: WILLING TO CONSIDER ACROSS THE POND:
Hi Todd. I’m trying to decide on a restaurant for very nice occasion. Right now I’m deciding locally between Rasika West End (have not been to the West End but been to original a few times) or BDT (have been a couple of times but not since the “new” kitchen).
Also, willing to travel to different East Coast city, if you think there’s something I cannot miss. Thinking Philly, NY or even Boston, I’d consider.
And if nothing really jumps out, willing to consider across the pond. I know – a slightly strange request. Thank you
Wait, so if nothing really captures your imagination locally you’re willing to fly to Europe for dinner? Whoa.
Have you been to the revamped Minibar? I think it’s fantastic. And fascinating. And, yes, occasionally infuriating. It’s $225 per person, which means I often don’t find myself recommending it to people. But it sounds as though money is really not a consideration for you. And if it’s not, then this is a fine, fine place to drop it. I had one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in a long time at Minibar this Spring.
In Philly, are you familiar with Vetri, Mark Vetri’s small, Komi-like dining room (to be fair, it preceded the current iteration of Komi by some years)? In New York, have you been to Per Se, Thomas Keller’s place? Or Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert’s place. Both are wonderful, and hugely memorable experiences for someone who adores good food and drink.
I just got a box of mangos shipped up from Miami. My friend has a mango tree in his back yard and it produces the Indian/Pakistani Mangos. The first time he sent me some mangos we were shocked by the quality and how sweet they were.
I gave some to my parents too and it reminded them of their childhood in Pakistan. They are eagerly awaiting this year’s shipment of mangos, which are scheduled to arrive tomorrow.
And what I’ve had of this year’s crop has been excellent. I’ll bet those mangoes are special. My mouth is watering as I type …
WHY “AMERICAN” FOOD IN D.C. IS SO EXPENSIVE, CONT.:
Ethic Restaurant Supply Chain: No implication regarding lesser quality intended. Quite the opposite.
I doubt that a Sysco truck has spent much time in the Eden Center parking lot. These stores seem to have tapped into a supply chain that non-ethnic restaurants will not, or cannot, connect with, and there would appear to be a different economic dynamic to the relationship. Then again, I could just be full of you know what.
I’ve heard that.
I think there’s truth to it; I’m just not sure that it applies to everything that is brought in.
I guess the question, re: so-called American restaurants putting out a simpler, much more inexpensive meal is: Do the restaurateurs not do because they can’t? Or because they won’t?
I really believe it’s the latter.
Gotta run, everyone. Thank you for everything today — the feedback, the speculations, the rantings, the tips, all of it …
And one more thing before we go … I want to wish a very, very, very, very happy birthday to my wife, Ellen, and hope that tonight’s dinner is special and indulgent and pampering, a real get-away from everything. She certainly deserves it.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]