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
EARLY IMPRESSIONS OF KAPNOS, AT 14TH AND V STS. NW:
I’ve got a reservation coming up for Kapnos but I may cancel it because it’s still early on and the restaurant is probably still working through some kinks.
Have you been yet and if so what’s your impression?
Had some good dishes, including one very good dish, a potato phyllo pie with a duck egg on top. But I found myself wishing for more. More of a feeling of rootedness. More soulfulness. It’s Greek food. I was hoping for flavors that had been slowly and exquisitely coaxed out of the raw materials.
To give just one example: the potatoes with lemon and chive. This is a simple, classic Greek dish. Roasted potatoes with lemon, garlic and olive oil. Nothing to it. Except that when it all comes together, it’s an exceptional dish — the potatoes develop a wonderful salty crust, the garlic is fragrant and provides a gentle kick, the lemon lends a light brightness, the olive oil knits all the various components together. I’ve eaten this dish many, many times and been unable to stop myself.
The dish here, I was able to. The night I had it, it was a forgettable dish. A mild — very mild — diversion from something like the roast goat.
I understand what the place is trying to be. And I also, as I say, have only been the one time. But I still want it to feel more hearty, more ethnic, even if everything is presented with exquisitely managed care and the space evolves into something of a bumping club around 8.
More of a sense of warmth and coherence.
FOR THOSE OF YOU TAKING “STAYCATIONS” THIS SUMMER …:
Hi Todd, a report from the field for folks taking “staycations” this summer and you don’t even have to leave the District.
Brunch (or lunch) at Bistrot Lepic – Madrange ham and gruyère cheese omelette with well dressed greens made for a good light brunch. Unfortunately the diced, sautéed potatoes were underwhelming. The apricot tart on the other hand was reason alone to visit.
Afterwards, a short stroll over to Dumbarton Oaks and a tour of their gardens ($8 admission fee). Absolutely lovely and you will completely forget that you are in the middle of Washington DC.
It’s a pretty special place, Dumbarton Oaks. And I love their concert series. Saw a fantastic performance a few years back, the great and stirring Anonymous 4.
Thanks for the report on Lepic. It’s one of those restaurants —one of those many restaurants — you don’t hear much about. My old editor used to talk about restaurants that have been around a while and occupy that very distinct middle ground between very good and mediocre.
I don’t recommend it very often, but more out of a sense of not really knowing someone’s taste than because it’s not worthy.
It’s not a foodie destination, certainly. But my last visit, late last year, was enjoyable. No revelations, but overall I’d say it was a meal of mildly pleasing French cooking with one or two high notes (which also seems to have been your experience). And I don’t know about the rest of you, but mildly pleasing French cooking has its satisfactions.
I should also say that the upstairs, the wine bar — my favorite place in the restaurant — is lively and cozy and charming and everything you want a place like this to be.
Wait wait wait. Kapnos turns into a bumping club like atmosphere at 8?! What the hell?
OK, a touch hyperbolic.
Not bumping by the standards of a club. But by the standards of most restaurants in the area, yeah. I mean, compared to Corduroy, it might as well be Love. : )
The night I was in, there was a perceptible change in the sort of people walking in. A perceptible change in dress, and manner. Very much a “We are here to do Kapnos” kind of vibe.
And the music, which I had not really noticed before, had evolved into that clubby thump thump thump
SHOUT-OUT TO TARA THAI, HYATTSVILLE:
Recognizing that none of the Tara Thai’s are particularly authentic, I want to give a shout out to the Hyattsville location for bringing the sweet-sour Issan-style heat in ways the other locations don’t.
It’s not Nava or Ruan Thai, but it’s much closer, and delivers into NE DC. I assume you have been here, Todd. Your thoughts?
I went a few times in the six months after they first opened. Haven’t been back since. But your report has me intrigued — thank you for that — and I’ll make a point of seeking out some of those dishes next time I’m in need of a Thai fix close to home.
The reason I haven’t been back is that there’s a better restaurant about six minutes away, Pho Thom, in College Park. The name suggests that it’s Vietnamese, but the menu is more Thai than Vietnamese and the best dishes are Thai as well. They do a good pad kee mao, a good yellow curry noodle, and a good basil fried rice with shrimp.
If you go, and you should, since you’re close, ask the waiter to have the chef go light on the oil with the latter dish. The rice will be lighter and fluffier.
I generally find that if you make these kind of minor requests tableside — these customizations that fall short of Meg Ryan’s high-maintenance control freakisms in “When Harry Met Sally” — you can improve your meal immensely.
Light on the oil in a stir fry. Medium-rare with the salmon. Light cheese on the pizza. A crispier bottom than usual on the pizza.
FROM LAST WEEK, A CLARIFICATION …:
Hi Todd, thanks for taking my question last week about BDT versus RWE. In my haste (joining the chat late and then having to leave the chat after hastily typing my question) I realize my question left a lot to be desired.
No, money is always a consideration, so I apologize for giving a wrong and quick impression. Though, correctly, I do love good food and good drinks. Anyway, what I was looking for was a sumptuous dining experience that was more of a hidden gem rather than the “usual” suspects. I wanted something that was consistently good (no hit or misses), which is why I was specifically asking about BDT and RWE, since everything I hear about both are pretty much hits and no misses. I like that quality of predictability in this city.
I was also taking suggestions outside of the city if one had such ringing endorsements for such a place, I would consider trying to get myself there. Thanks for allowing me clarification and for your consideration.
And just to extend the conversation a little, there are two places that are outside the city, without requiring a trip, that I think are worth thinking about when you’re looking for something good and a change of pace.
One is Pabu, perched right on the harbor in Baltimore, in the Four Seasons. The robata selection has, unfortunately, narrowed considerably; no more chicken hearts or tails or skin. I miss all of them. I think the kitchen had something special going there with these skewers.
The sushi remains fantastic, however. One of the things that distinguishes the nigiri is the quality of the rice (and also the fact that they use a fermented vinegar). The fish itself is often exquisite.
And you can’t go and not order sake. What a selection. I haven’t done a proper investigation, but I haven’t seen a more extensive collection anywhere on the East Coast.
And the notes for drinking are as insightful as they are instructive.
The other getaway place is Vin 909 Winecafe, in Annapolis — well, technically in Eastport — in a charmingly landscaped craftsman house. Excellent small plates and excellent pizzas. (I wish the wines were as interesting, though I applaud them for offering so many by the glass for $8.)
The pies are as thin as pies get, and crispy and puffy in all the right places. The “No Skimp Margherita” was presumably concocted with people like my friend Andre in mind — Andre, who regards most boutique pizza as “tomato bread.” No spareness, here. But the nice thing is, it’s not overloaded to the extent that the pie loses its balance. It’s just richer and more satisfying a taste than many more conventional Neapolitans.
HEADING UP TO NYC OVER LABOR DAY WEEKEND:
My wife and I are headed up to NYC over the Labor Day weekend. We’ve got 4 nights to fill, one of which is already booked at Daniel. Any other suggestions for the trip? Open to any and all cuisines and price points but would prefer to stay in Manhattan
Let’s hope you get the Pete Wells meal, and not the dining decoy meal. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/24/dining/reviews/restaurant-review-daniel-on-the-upper-east-side.html?comments&_r=0
If I were you, and funds were what you say there are, I would try to hit one of Per Se and Le Bernardin, or both, and make room for lunch at NoMad.
We ate at Kapnos and everything was amazing, and I have a professional cooking background am harsh to restaurants (I can usually make better a lot of what I have, so automatically, that gets a fail. This place did not).
We had the watermelon with pepper and kohlrabi; roasted wood ear mushrooms; octopus; and roasted pig. Just excellent all around. Service was also good–attentive but not fawning.
Nice. Good to hear.
Interestingly, I had none of those dishes.
I could go back and be wowed, like you. I hope that happens. I always hope that happens with a place.
A single visit is necessarily incomplete. And it often takes a restaurant some time to find its rhythm. Not just with food, but with everything. But a single visit is not nothing, either. The hope is that as time goes by, the execution of plates is tighter, and that the dishes that work, work better (and that the dishes that don’t work are dispatched), and that the staff relaxes and makes its rounds with confidence and authority and ease.
But there are some things I would hope to see right out of the box. The qualities I talked about, these have to be built-in; they have to be there in the beginning. I don’t think you can develop them in the same way you can, as a staff, develop more confidence and, as a kitchen team, more care in the preparation.
But we’ll see. It’s early. It’s one visit.
BEING A STICKLER ABOUT BURGER TEMPERATURES:
Hi Todd, I was intrigued by your comments last week about how customers should be sticklers about burger temperatures and send them back until the requested temp is achieved.
I for one, always order mine mid-rare, rare, and NEVER get that result. They are always way too done.
I wonder though how servers and cooks feel about this. Is this going to rub people the wrong way, nitpicking over something so simple? It’s a burger, not a ribeye. I find a well-done burger can taste fantastic — the same is not the case with a fine steak.
It’s not a ribeye, no. But why ask a customer how they would like something cooked if you don’t intend to honor it? That’s A. And 2: It’s the service industry. The hospitality industry. The restaurant really ought to care that you go away happy. Especially in this day and age when everybody can go online and destroy a place with a few hastily-chosen, vitriolic sentences.
I wouldn’t bring anything up with a place like Five Guys. Or any other kind of prole burger spot. But a restaurant? A restaurant that is charging anywhere from $12-$18 — and sometimes more? That restaurant is saying that this is not just a burger. It’s saying: We want you to think of this as a small-scale ribeye.
Personally, I haven’t had many well-done burgers that taste fantastic. And most burgers that are cooked rare, I find, are too soft of texture to be interesting.
Since we’re talking about burgers, I want to take a moment to praise a great one. The burger at Green Pig Bistro, which — neat touch, defining touch — has bacon mixed into the beef. It also helps that the burger is so loosely packed; no doubt the bacon in the mix helps a great deal.
Too many burgers are too tightly packed. The result, often, is a tidy eating experience. That’s nice if you’re on a business meal or on a first date and want to make a certain kind of impression. But a burger is not a neat eating experience. It’s a sloppy eating experience. This one is.
I also love that the bun, which rides up high at the start, collapses down nicely into the meat and becomes at one with it. Too many high-end burgers have buns that ride up high and never settle down.
(It’s nice, too, to eat a burger with someone who clearly loves a good burger, who loves to pass it back and forth across the table and get down and dirty with it, in spite of the the stylized surroundings.)
FOLLOWING UP: THE RETURN OF HOT SHOPPES:
You mentioned in the last chat that a Hot Shoppes couldn’t make it in today’s current restaurant scene. You know that the new Marriott by the Convention Center is supposed to have a Hot Shoppes when it opens?
And I hope that it kills in that spot.
Remains to be seen, though.
Look, I hope I’m wrong. I’d like nothing more than to see several Hot Shoppes throughout the area. I have a lot of affection for those places.
I hope the principals understand that if this Hot Shoppes is going to make it, it cannot be exactly what it was twenty-five years ago. People know too much, now, and consequently they expect more than they used to. The quality of the food will have to be higher. Fresher. At the same time, it has to remain essentially what it was — an accessible place, a comfortable place, a place where you can take four people and spend a relative pittance. And yet feel satisfied and cared for.
How many places can you name in this entire area that fit the description I just gave? The new, improved Silver Diner is one. Ray’s to the Third is another. Franklins Restaurant and Brewpub. And what else?
Re: ATTMAN’S DELI — NEW, IN POTOMAC:
Have you tried Attman’s in Potomac yet? We just went there this weekend, and I was not impressed.
The reuben was good, but not superior to versions I’ve had elsewhere, the matzoh ball soup was a pale, watery broth and the fried chicken my son ordered was practically inedible. Just wondering if you have been there and what you’re thoughts were.
I haven’t been yet, no.
Soon, soon …
My colleague Ann Limpert has been, however, and her initial report was much the same as yours.
SOFTSHELLS: WHERE DO I GET THEM?:
I eat softshells just about any time I see them on a menu (or especially as a special) because they are delicious, and they’ll be gone soon.
With summer winding down, what are some softshell dishes I should seek out?
Jack: you’re a man after my own heart — and stomach.
DC Coast has generally done a good job over the years with the softshells it gets in. On the menu now is something called “Tower of Crab.” Dig it: a crabcake on top of a softshell. My idea of overkill.
I’ve had mixed feelings in recent years about Equinox, but it’s a place that knows what to do with softshells. Todd Gray, the chef, hails from the Chesapeake. He knows from softshells, as they used to say in Brooklyn (but not about softshells).You’re simply not going to find overfrying.
Currently, he’s pairing them with a fried green tomato and a salsa verde.
Same goes for Johnny’s Half Shell. I don’t think I’ve ever not loved the softshells here. Pan sauteed (which is how I generally prefer them, so that you don’t lose the sweetness, and so the delicate meatiness doesn’t have to compete with fry to be heard), and served with spoonbread. Hanks also does them in the pan, and sides them with an Asian slaw.
One more to make you hungry: Palena Cafe’s fritto misto currently includes, among its mix of crunchy fried things, soft shells. This is a kitchen that understands how to fry. Always light, never greasy. And enhancing, never overwhelming, the putative star.
RESTAURANT WEEK IDEAS?:
I just learned of a Summer Restaurant Week — apparently no longer just an annual event — and wondered what your best picks would be? (My spouse and I would likely go for a lunch option, as that is usually a more budget-friendly deal.) Because honestly, I can’t keep up with this revolving door of a restaurant scene. What do you think is up with that, anyway?
On a side note, I wanted to say thanks for all the years I’ve enjoyed reading your eloquent writing and glimpsed insights not only into the food scene but also truisms on the way we live.
We are moving away, alas, and I hope to find an equally skilled food writer for my new digs.
That’s really nice of you to say. Thank you.
And especially your remark about the way we live. I would like to think that food is part of the larger conversation, that to be engaged with the culture means reading books (and not merely nonfiction!), going to plays and shows, going to galleries and museums, keeping up with politics and the media, and going to restaurants. That all these things matter, and in some way reflect (and sometimes refract) one another.
All too often, I find that people want to narrow the lens. Food as escape. Food as a way of separating and elevating oneself, while insisting that it is only a matter of “taste.”
I’m sorry to hear we’ll be losing you. Thanks for being a reader all this time. I’m grateful. And I hope that you’ll drop us a note when you’re ensconced in your new scene, whenever that is.
As for keeping up … yeah, tell me about it.
The explosion we’re seeing has almost everything to do with the fact that the economy has been so good here for the past five years when nearly everywhere else is hurting, and money is flowing into here from so many sources.
By the way: here’s a guide I put together for Restaurant Week last time. I think it applies equally well this time:
HEADING TO FLORENCE, ITALY:
We’re headed to Florence, Italy next week for vacation. It is August and many of the famous restaurants are closed. Do you have any suggestions for non-tourist trap eating?
Wish I could help. Sorry.
And sorry for getting to this question so late in the chat …
Chatters? Come to the rescue, please …
GREEN PIG BISTRO’S BURGER, CONT.:
Damn. I must have ordered everything at Green Pig BUT the burger.
You make a great point about a loosely packed burger. So often that’s the difference between bad and good, or good and great.
I’m not entirely sold on blending bacon into beef. I like my burgers medium rare (oftentimes such burgers are cooked beyond that on account of the swine) and unadulterated. But if you insist (and Scot is cooking) I guess I’m heading back to Arlington.
It’s a magnificent burger.
Easily Top 5. Maybe Top 3. And at this point, I can’t think of another burger I’m pining to return for.
It’s funny that you say you ordered everything BUT the burger on your last visit, because on my last visit everything BUT the burger was disappointing.
NYC LUNCHES, CONT.:
Another suggestion: one of my favorite meals in NY is lunch at Jean Georges.
They have a fantastic lunch deal with the same great service. This makes me wonder why more fine dining restaurants at the higher end in DC don’t offer great lunch deals. Any particular ones you would recommend?
Two of the best lunch deals are the ones at Restaurant Eve, in Alexandria — the Lickety Split Lunch — and at Proof, in DC, the Lunch Crush Special.
And since you brought up Jean-Georges Vongerichten — another recommendation for lunch (or dinner) is ABC Kitchen. It’s one of those restaurants that makes everything look effortless. Which just makes a meal that much more relaxing.
Another lunch rec: Sakagura, on 43rd. Homemade soba: ‘nuff said. But the sashimi is also really good.
ATTMAN’S IN POTOMAC, CONT.:
I was also pretty disappointed by Attman’s. The food was … okay … the service was well-intentioned at best, and the whole experience was underwhelming.
They had only been open a few days when I was there, so I’m inclined to cut them some slack but the whole experience was a downer. Which is a huge shame because I absolutely ADORE the Baltimore location. I’m hoping that some early negative reaction gets them to bring some Baltimore staff down and get the place running properly.
But, yeah, for the moment this is one of the biggest restaurant disappointments I can remember.
That’s a real shame. A real shame.
Thanks for writing in …
I really like the original, too. Of course, part of what I like about the original is that it’s the original. It has character. It feels like a deli should. Great texture.
DINING IN FLORENCE, CONT.:
Go for a Florentine Steak at Buca Lapi. We had visited Chianti wine country and one of the proprietors actually lived in Florence. I asked him where to go and he pointed us there.
The steaks were beautiful, massive and simple. Definitely get a reservation before going, I’d have your hotel call ahead
And in just in time, too.
What a community this is. I hope you all know that I feel very, very privileged to be part of this ongoing conversation with you.
I’m firmly in the pan sauteed camp as well, though I certainly don’t turn down the fried or grilled varieties.
I’ve never had softshells at Palena, so I’ll make that my next stop.
I think that people who really love softshells prefer them pan-sauteed.
Frying them — hell, I’d never turn one down, but frying them is just not the same. It’s a good way, though, to get newbies interested. They don’t have to look and see that they’re eating a critter. They can relax and forget and just dig down into the crunchy shell and experience some of the pleasure of a softshell.
Maximum pleasure is pan-sauteed. And pan-sauteed by someone who knows. And cares.
I like corn of some kind with a softshell, which is why my first thought for softshells is always Ann Cashion’s prep at Johnny’s Hall Shell. Pan-sauteed softshells with spoonbread. A perfect combo. I really don’t think it can be improved upon. Monk and Ellington. Fitzgerald and Perkins. Picasso and blue.
Gotta run. Lunch is calling, and of course all I REALLY want to eat now is softshells …
Thanks again so much for the thoughtful commentary, the tips, the recs, the reports from the field …You make Tuesdays fun.
Be well, everyone, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …[missing you, TEK …]