Where can you get a three-star experience at one-star prices? Which hot new
restaurant merits the scorching hype? The answer to all these questions
and more can be found Tuesdays at 11 AM on Kliman Online.
From scoping out scruffy holes in the wall to weighing the merits of
four-star wanna-bes, from scouring the ‘burbs and exurbs to hitting the
city’s streets, Todd Kliman covers a lot of territory.
Winner of a James
Beard Foundation Award in 2005 for the country’s best newspaper column
about food, Kliman is food and wine editor and restaurant critic for The Washingtonian. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Oxford American, Lucky Peach, The Daily Beast and Men’s Health, among others, and he has been selected four times for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies.
He is the author of The Wild Vine,
a literary exploration of two entwined mysteries: an obscure grape that
rose to prominence, only to disappear, and its present-day evangelist, a
foul-mouthed transgendered multi-millionaire vintner on an obsessive
quest to restore the legend of an antebellum southern doctor.
Todd previously taught writing and literature at American University and Howard University. At Howard, he was also the editorial advisor to The Illtop Journal, Chris Rock’s humor magazine modeled after the Harvard Lampoon.
Can’t wait a week to talk to Todd? Follow him on Twitter for dining reports, tips, and breaking news from the culinary world. Or write to him: firstname.lastname@example.org
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
* Ya Hala, Vienna
The tabbouleh is made-to-order, and superb — an explosion of tender, sweet parsley and fruity olive oil. The baba ghanous is exceptional, too — subtly smoky, perfectly textured. If only for these two dishes, I’d recommend making the trek to this tiny, friendly Lebanese diner. But there’s good stuff beyond, including an array of meat pies, minted yogurts, and small, delicate desserts. Alas, the meats, though flavorful, are not as tender as the rest of the cooking would seem to promise, but a dip in the excellent garlic sauce and a pile of perfect rice makes up for it.
Rus Uz, Arlington
This homey cafe in Ballston is the only Russian-Uzbek restaurant in the area. But novelty alone doesn’t recommend it. I love all the things that chef-owner Bakhtiyor Rakhmatullaev does with dough and meat — from the savory pastries (samsas, cheburekis, and piroshkas) that are essential to any meal to the fabulous dumplings (including veal-stuffed pelmeni and manti, the latter filled with ground spiced lamb and buried under drifts of sour cream). My two meals here were richly rewarding, and among the most memorable of this spring and summer.
There are more reasons to head to Frederick than a chance to dine high (Volt) or low (Family Meal) at one of ex-TV chef Bryan Voltaggio’s spots. You can, instead, dine in the middle at owner-chef Ric Ade’s homage to the rich culinary traditions of Turkey, Greece and Lebanon. The dining room, with its marble floors and white-and-blue color scheme, is cool and inviting on a hot summer day, and despite the almost exhaustive reach of the menu — 87 items in all, not including specials — the kitchen is surprisingly consistent. Those specials are where to turn first: sweet sugar snap peas with almonds, black salt and olive oil; a whole, sweet dorade perfumed with oregano and lemon and cooked on the grill to a perfect underdoneness. Don’t miss the homemade fig and apricot newtons for dessert, rich and buttery cookies that simultaneously summon and obliterate all your memories of the packaged treats from your childhood.
Curry Leaf, Laurel
The former chef at Udupi Palace, the beloved Langley Park vegetarian Indian restaurant that shuttered three years ago, has made a triumphant return at this comfy Laurel stripmall restaurant. Saravan Krishnan presides over a kitchen that covers a lot more ground than his predecessor’s did — street food, curries, Indo-Chinese, tandoor, dosas, biryani, and breads are among the categories that make up the long and sprawling menu. Some Indian food can be characterized as spicy. Krishnan’s is that more elusive beast — it’s spiced. Heat is not the end game, though he certainly doesn’t shy away from it; the thing you take away from many of these dishes, however, is the way a gravy or a sauce appears to change as you eat it, the way its complex, carefully coaxed flavors deepen and reveal new and different truths as you go. Among the must-orders are the lemon rice — its light, citrusy topnotes accentuate the nuttiness of the crushed and toasted cashews scattered throughout — and a Sri Lankan specialty of hardboiled eggs in a rich brown curry shot through with black pepper and cinnamon and served with Ceylon-style parathas, smaller than their Indian counterparts and coiled like ropes at rest. The latter eats like a lusher version of the Malaysian staple roti canai and might just be the most memorable dish I’ve eaten this year.
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.
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.
* new this week
THE RED HEN — NEW, IN BLOOMINGDALE :
When is the review for The Red Hen coming out?
It’s out. Take a look at the issue that just hit newsstands and grocery stores.
THE CHEAP EATS ISSUE:
Hi Todd —
I read the Cheap Eats issue and it inspired me to venture out for some Korean BBQ over the long Labor Day weekend. My husband and I have never eaten it before — but we want the legit experience. Which restaurant would you recommend?
We are relatively adventurous eaters but don’t have great experience in Asian flavors (beyond standard sushi and cheap Chinese). Seems like each joint has its pluses, minuses … and then I was reading Yelp reviews and just got lost in the options.
Any advice is appreciated! Thank you!
Stacey, forgive me if I come across as glib or dismissive, but if you were looking for recommendations you had them right their in your hands when you were reading the magazine.
That issue was a mammoth undertaking. We spent months and months crisscrossing the three jurisdictions to arrive at our selections for each of the dominant food cultures in the region. The restaurants we singled out are the ones that excited us most — the most distinctive, the most distinguished, the most fully realized of their class, etc.
And because we wanted the guide to be handy to diners at all levels of experience, we included starter places and intermediate places, as well as places for the highly seasoned.
Look it over again, and take a chance on one of the starter spots — or have faith that one of our feature picks (Gom Ba Woo, for instance) is going to have something to appeal to you.
50TH BIRTHDAY BRUNCH — WHERE?:
My wife’s 50th bday is coming up and she loves brunch. What is the best – i.e. most special occasion worthy – brunch in the DC area.
She is not a big drinker so bottomless drinks is not a draw but not a disqualifier either. Indifferent to whether it is a buffet or not but it should be memorable.
Four Seasons. No question.
Just be prepared for the cost. Are you ready for it?
With parking, you’re looking at over $200 for two.
Insane, I know. But here’s the thing. You can linger as long as you like. Bring a crossword puzzle to do together between savories and sweets. Relax and take in the views of Rock Creek Park and the Watergate.
Is the food worth it?
Inasmuch as any brunch could be, yes.
It’s all-you-can-eat, but about the most genteelly presented all-you-can-eat you’ve ever seen. Many of the stations are tucked around corners, or stashed in rooms, so that you don’t have to feel that you’re a glutton gorging at a massive spread.
I’d spent most of my time at the raw bar — stellar oysters, shrimp, gravalax, mussels, and more — and at the ceviche station, where the dish is assembled (and spiced) to order as you wait.
The disappointment is the dessert room. Everything looks exquisite, but the payoff isn’t what you think.
Go, and plan accordingly.
And if you do go, I’d love to hear a report. I hope your wife has a great time.
WHEN THE STAR CHEF IS IN THE KITCHEN — AND WHEN HE ISN’T …:
Question for you following your quick thoughts on Kapnos the other day… how big a difference does it make when a *star* chef is in the restaurant vs. away?
Last week, you mentioned the difference it makes when Peter Chang is in the house, so just wondering if you think it’s something that pretty important generally, or only for certain types of restaurants perhaps?
I went to Kapnos 2 weekends ago, and it really exceeded my expectations. Of the 7 dishes we ordered, all but one was really good and a few were very special – the kind of dish that has you thinking about when you’ll come back right after you leave.
I’m wondering if it was because Isabella was there, running around the kitchen, and if it will be as good when we return in a few weeks. I remember having a few really great dishes during my first meal at Graffiato and then being disappointed by how much it had slipped when I returned.
In theory, it shouldn’t make a difference if the star chef is in the kitchen or not.
I mean, that’s what star chefs are always telling us.
Chef, they say, means chief, not cook. My job, they say, is to train my staff in my cuisine, and if I do that job properly, they can execute my dishes whether I’m hovering over them at the pass or mountain biking in the Alps.
Which sounds great.
But it does make a difference. It makes a big difference. Even at restaurants without a star chef, meals are almost always better when the boss is around to make sure that things are done exactly the way they are supposed to.
Cooks don’t have it easy. It’s a grueling job. And it’s easy to lose your sense of precision, your sense of focus, your sense of rightness of detail, when you’re on the line night after night, hour after hour, working at an insane speed to keep up with demand.
I’ll give you a recent example — a pizza I ordered not long ago. It scarcely resembled what I had had previously at this restaurant. Not enough poof on the piled arugula, which meant that the greens either had been overdressed or were sitting too long. In this case, it was both. And the tomatoes were not all heirlooms, something I noticed immediately, because the deep red I was accustomed to simply wasn’t there. There were a lot of thin, wan-looking slices; even one thin, wan-looking slice would have been too many. Finally, the usual finishing application of coarse salt was missing, too.
I have little doubt that this flat-tasting pizza would never have been made, much less gone out, if the chef had been in.
Incidentally, one of the things that makes the mom ‘n’ pop ethnic restaurants so consistent is that, by and large, the chef is almost always in. No galas to attend, no second and third restaurants to check up on, no wine dinners to host, no publicists to meet with, no cookbooks to “write,” etc.
THE MOST EXCITING NEW RESTAURANTS IN THE AREA?:
What do you think are the most exciting new restaurants in the area?
I want to go to Le Diplomate but it is still way too busy. I enjoyed some takeout from Rus Uz in Arlington. Del Campo sounds great but I have not heard about it yet.
I am really excited about Osteria Morini and Bluejacket. Am I missing anything?
Yes. You’re missing The Red Hen, which I think is the best restaurant to have opened this calendar year.
Glad you made it to Rus Uz. I find myself craving, among other things, their manti — soft, palm-sized ravioli stuffed with peppery ground lamb and with lots of thick sour cream and chopped chive on top.
DESPERATE FOR A RECIPE:
Is it tacky to call for recipe(s) from our favorite restaurant Maple Ave Restaurant. Do you think Chef Tim Ma would share his recipes? I need to know whats in the wing sauce.
Tacky? Not at all.
What could be tacky about asking for a recipe?
I hope chef Ma is reading, and that he is willing to give up the goods.
It’s a pretty great sauce, isn’t it?
Re: THE NEW SANDWICH GUIDE:
I am enjoying the sandwich guide in the latest issue. What’s your favorite all around sandwich shop in town?
A friend of mine votes for Sundevich. I think I lean toward Taylor Gourmet, although G Sandwich is giving it a run for its money.
Sundevich is very good. I wish their breads were just a little lighter; it would make a big difference in many of their sandwiches.
G Sandwich is promising. I’ve had the meatball and the suckling pig, both good. Though both so amped up and rich that even without finishing an entire sub I was unable to eat a real dinner that night.
I like a lot of what I’ve tasted at Bub and Pop’s, and the sliced brisket with aged gouda and apple-horseradish is absolutely killer.
It’s not in DC, but I want to single it out for some attention here because it’s that good: Bon Fresco, in Columbia. Gerald Koh managed Breadline in its pre-corporate heyday, and he does the baking for his shop. His baguettes are fantastic — wonderfully yeasty, full of air pockets, great crumb. I love a sandwich he does of brie, tomato jam and caramelized onions on one of his fresh-baked baguettes. Phenomenal. I’d drive forty minutes, easy, just to have it.
NOLA EATING AND DRINKING:
Hello Todd. Going to New Orleans this weekend.
Heading right to Commander’s Palace when we get off the plane for lunch and 25 cent margaritas. Also going to check out some fried chicken at Willie Mae’s.
What are some of the places you like going to in New Orleans not just for food but for drinks?
Here’s my shortlist:
Sylvain’s — a great bar with great food, too.
French 75, at Arnaud’s — classic, old New Orleans.
The Carousel Bar, in the Monteleon Hotel. Fun, strange spot.
Cure. One of the first craft cocktail spots in Nola.
Bellocq, which was started by the guys from Cure. Lots of interesting pre-Prohibition stuff.
The Sazerac Bar, in the Roosevelt Hotel. The titular drink is, as you’d expect, perfect.
And for drinking and not thinking about what you’re drinking, just drinking and having a good time — DOA, on Frenchman St.
Re: HELLER’S, IN ADAMS MORGAN:
hey Todd —
although I live in Cleveland Park, and eat often in places there and in Woodley Park and Dupont Circle, I do find myself often lately veering east into Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, U Street.
anyway — I like DGS, but I prefer my Jewish deli more old school. driving out of Adams Morgan the other morning, I happened to see Heller’s — is that a deli, a bakery, or what? Worth trying? Where can I get good deli and good fresh bagels around here anyway? Thanks, man . . .
Not a deli, no.
More a bakery — a solidly below-average bakery.
Actually, no — more a place to drop a lot of money for a middling brunch.
Good bagels? You’re out of luck if you’re confining yourself to Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle and Woodley Park.
You said you live in Cleveland Park. It’s not a deli, of course, but Peter Pastan’s 2 Amys makes bagels — and cream cheese — every Saturday.
EATING AND DRINKING IN NOLA, CONT.:
A few of my favorite New Orleans spots to grab a drink (if OP is still here):
Swizzle Stick Bar, inside the Loews Hotel.
The Old Absinthe House, if you want a quiet place to drink on Bourbon St. It’s a quirky space but the drinks are good and they have an awesome jukebox.
Any place with a great jukebox needs to be sought out, regardless.
Thanks for the added tips …
The Cheap Eats mag is awesome! Now tell me, where can I get a good inexpensive sandwich in this city???
I’ll hang up and listen.
P.S. Please don’t kill me.
“Look, I don’t like curly fries, I don’t eat curly fries — I’m told they’re very good …”
Free cookbook to the first person not named Matt or Jack who writes in and identifies the source of that quote and the context.
Sorry, all. “I’ll hang up and listen” just triggered an ancient association …
Sandwiches. Good, inexpensive sandwiches. And in D.C., land of the middling, expensive sandwich. Tough one, Jack. This is stump-the-band territory, here.
The aforementioned Bub and Pop’s, on M, is where I’d turn. That brisket with aged gouda and apple-horseradish is about as good as prole sandwiches get. Have you had the G Man at Mangialardo’s, on Capitol Hill? If you’re willing to drive a little, four bucks gets you an excellent cold cut banh mi at Banh Mi DC Sandwich.
ANY AFFORDABLE RESTAURANTS OUT THERE?:
Just saw the prices for the new restaurant in Shaw – Thally. It’s about $17-28 for an entree.
While I”m happy it’s not another small plates-type place, I’m a little taken aback by the prices. Not that they are out of line with new restaurants opening up but that it seems that the ONLY restaurants opening up now have that same price point.
Can we expect any new restaurants on the horizon to actually be “affordable.” It’s a relative term for DC nowadays. I mean affordable in that you shouldn’t have to consider it a special night out in order to eat there? You don’t have to be a biglaw attorney or lobbyist to afford it.
It seems the only options for such fare that isn’t burgers or pizza is a regional chain like Ted’s Bulletin. I know ethnic restaurants are cheaper but Thally and Doi Moi are expensive to mid-priced asian restaurants. I’m talking about DC proper as I know the suburbs offer more affordable options.
Is there any hope for people who like to eat out weekly but not have to drop at least $50 on a typical sit-down meal (entree, and maybe drink or two)?
The short answer is: no.
Thally and Casa Luca and Doi Moi and others are styling themselves as casual and accessible places, but that’s mostly because the culture demands that now.
Turn the clock back a decade, and what these name chefs and restaurateurs would be opening would be fine-dining restaurants. Or finer dining, anyway. But the ground has shifted, perhaps permanently, and now restaurants can’t appear to be trying too hard. Can’t appear too formal or too serious.
Doesn’t mean they aren’t serious. Many of these places are very serious. Some, in fact, give you a sense that everyone on the floor is holding his breath, hoping against hope to avert disaster.
But they must present themselves as fun, lively and even offhand in their approach. I’ll never forget a manager at Bourbon Steak telling me, a couple of years ago, that this expensive and elegant Four Seasons destination, with a celebrity chef and a pot pie selling for $60-whatever was really just a “neighborhood restaurant.”
Because fine dining has the taint. It says “expensive.” Never mind that you can easily drop $150 at a place like Central on burgers, fries and banana splits. It says “passe.”
I took a friend recently to Casa Luca, explaining before we arrived that it was a new restaurant from Fabio Trabocchi, a more casual version of Fiola.
At one point in the meal he glanced up from his menu and said, “This is casual? I’d hate to see formal and expensive.”
AND THE ANSWER IS …:
Too late to answer the question? Ken Beatrice shilling for Arby’s on his radio program.
Drop me an email, email@example.com, and I’ll send you something in the mail.
You know, it’s terrible and soul-killing to analyze something funny, but those commercials are funny in such a strange way. Here’s this man, Beatrice, this sports talk host with his fanatically detailed recall of SAM linebackers from Podunk Tech, and now, for this commercial, he takes that same methodical, drill-down-into-the-details, deadly sober approach to talking about a crummy roast beef sandwich and fries, rattling on for minutes in his honking New England accent.
It’s a masterpiece of the bizarre, and a strange and unforgettable piece of my childhood.
Is there a clip of it anywhere on the web? I’d love to hear it again.
such insignificant things
ANNIVERSARY DINNER — WHERE SHOULD WE GO?:
Trying to figure out where to go for our anniversary dinner this year. Over the years we’ve been to most of the major players…Marcel, Source, Komi, Cityzen, Restaurant Eve, Seasonal Pantry. We’re leaning towards Marcels this year . Got any other suggestions?
Husband doesn’t care much for Italian, which is why we aren’t considering Fiola. The Inn at Little Washington is also out, bc w/ a toddler and 6 month old at home, it’s just too far. I’m no longer interested in Minibar, as it seems to have turned into more of a spectacle than actual eating event. I would hate to have a tini tiny bite of something that I might love.
Marcel’s is terrific.
For something different, what about a trip to Baltimore and a night at Pabu — superlative sushi and sashimi and a knockout sake collection.
FINE DINING VS. CASUAL AND ACCESSIBLE, CONT.:
I appreciate your view on fine dining on the outs and the omnipresent casual and accessible restaurants popping up everywhere in DC. I can understand the OP query about affordable places to eat out in DC – and with every new place opening up there is opportunity but no one seems to be doing this.
I would take fine dining any day (depending upon the proprietor) over places that only masquerade as casual and accessible. When I say casual and accessible, I also mean (to imply or otherwise) being authentic.
Well, I disdain labels in general. With food, with art, with books, with politics.
Labels don’t often help you to gain clarity; often they substitute for seeing something as it is. Label something, and you tend to distort it.
What’s interesting, here, is that with so few places remaining that can be called fine dining, our sense of the upper-echelon has to shift, too. A certain kind of restaurants wants desperately that we should see it as casual, but in its seriousness of approach, its breath-holding air, its entrees in the high 20s and even 30s, we should probably be looking upon it as a formal, fine-dining restaurant in informal clothing.
Ever meet a guy who likes to wear a tie even when he’s home and done for the day? He can’t imagine himself in a t-shirt, and neither can you.
In DC restaurants nowadays, you have places that really can’t imagine themselves without ties, but, because of the culture, are ditching it and tossing on frayed jeans and a tight t-shirt.
And … lunchtime.
Thanks, everyone. For the tips, and the comments, and the ruminations, and the surprise trip down Ken Beatrice lane …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …[*missing you, TEK … *]