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
RETURN TRIP TO SICHUAN JIN RIVER, IN ROCKVILLE:
So I went to Sichuan Jin River this weekend for the second time. I had to laugh when someone walked in with the cheap eats issue of the Washingtonian tucked under their arm turned to your review of this place. Hope he had a great lunch!
I had the mapo tofu for the first time- wow it was amazing! Do you know what is in this dish? The flavors are so complex with layered heat – can still feel my mouth tingling (ok I’m eating leftovers right now so I guess that’s why).
My 9 year old LOVES the dan dan noodles, which to a kid is like spicy spaghetti. Are you still liking this place?
Still liking, yes.
And I’m glad you had such a good meal. And let’s hope the magazine reader did, too; thanks for that funny tidbit.
(Speaking of which: I was at a restaurant a few years ago, and sitting next to me was a woman who was reading one of my reviews. I couldn’t resist sneaking a peek now and again, though I didn’t tell her that I was the writer she was reading. When I was in my teens and just starting out, I used to tell everybody. If they were reading something I wrote, or even if they had the paper turned to that page, I spoke up. That was the great thing with print, to see somebody reading what you wrote. On a screen, it could be anything. A site for clothes. Porn. Someone’s email. A cat playing piano. … Not special.)
As for the ma po tofu — at the most basic level, it’s bean curd, mashed black beans, ground pork, and chili oil. What makes it distinctive, though, is the ma and the la, in other words, the combination of numbing and spicy. (Ma la literally translates to numbing and spicy.)
Your mouth was tingling because of the crushed Sichuan peppercorns, which long precede the arrival of chili peppers in China; the latter was only introduced 300 some years ago. The numbing peppercorns were used medicinally, and now many chefs mix them with the chilis. The effect is fascinating; that numbing of the lip and tongue entirely changes the way you experience the scorching heat.
BELATED FEEDBACK: RG’S BBQ CAFE, IN LAUREL:
I owe feedback from JULY on my wonderful experiences with RG’s BBQ Cafe in Laurel.
I wrote in asking for BBQ recommendations for my husband’s 50th birthday celebration, and you suggested I contact RG’s. It was a lovely experience, all around, both with regard to the food and to the experience of planning the dinner.
Itzel, Robert’s wife was extremely helpful in figuring out what I needed (and what I didn’t). Not to belabor the point, but she was attentive to detail, quick to respond and handled a few changes at the last minute without any problems.
And the food was awesome and plentiful. We’ve now been to eat at the restaurant in Laurel, as have my parents! And I can’t wait to go back.
Thank you again for the recommendation. I wanted to give credit where credit most certainly was due!
That’s so great to hear.
I haven’t heard back from many people about RG’s, which I chalk up, in large part, to the irrational fear of the county that deranges too many otherwise sensible, adventurous people.
(This is not, by the way, the same irrational fear that Virginians have of venturing into Maryland, or Marylanders have of “crossing the river,” as they say, into Virginia.
(It’s ten times worse. And people either go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to try to justify it, or, astonishingly, speak their ignorance without any fear of repercussion.)
Right now, it’s at the top of my list when it comes to all-around ‘cue spots. KBQ is awaiting its relaunch in Glenarden. Red, Hot and Blue, in Laurel (and Laurel only) can send out great racks of ribs (but you sometimes have to push them to give you the really juicy stuff). Kloby’s, also in Laurel, is uneven (but good when it’s good). Dixie Bones, in Woodbridge, has better chicken than ribs (and a very good pecan pie). I like Hill Country for its moist brisket (absolutely fantastic) and its Kreuz Market sausages; everything else is only okay and often oversalted and too expensive. I’ve been just the once to the BBQ Joint, in Pasadena — this is the second location of Andrew Evans’s operation; Evans was the chef at the acclaimed Inn at Easton; everything looked great and smelled great, but the ribs were, unaccountably, nearly devoid of flavor. A real shame. I’ll go back, certainly, but this was a real disappointment.
And as to your point about giving credit where credit is due: I tweeted out the news on Friday that Ben’s Chili Bowl was going to be moving into the original Ray’s the Steaks space, in Arlington. Story ran yesterday in a certain local publication and — no mention at all.
FOLLOWING UP: ANNIVERSARY B&Bs … AND A POSTCARD FROM S.F./NAPA:
For the chatter from last week looking for an anniversary B&B, I’d check out the Clifton Inn, outside of Charlottesville.
We had a really wonderful anniversary meal at the restaurant there last year after a friend suggested I book a seat at the chef’s table in the kitchen. For $100 each, we had maybe 17 courses, all of which were good and some of which were really great (I still think about their tuna tartare).
The chefs were so great to talk to and clearly spend a lot of time finding, growing, and bartering for (so they said) quality ingredients. We literally had to beg them to stop sending food, we were so stuffed, and still they sent a few more plates our way. It was really a great experience and I’ve heard the inn is very nice as well – as a back up, you could try the Boar’s Head Inn, where we stayed because they didn’t have a 2 night minimum.
Separately, just returned from Northern California and wanted to thank you for your recommendations, Todd.
Frances in SF was wonderful, as was Ad Hoc in Napa (we got lucky – they were serving the fried chicken that night and it was definitely the best I’ve ever had). Also tried out Central Kitchen in SF (very good, but some inconsistencies – I preferred Frances), The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena (quite an experience, got to see the kitchen which was awesome!), and Sierra Mar and the Big Sur Bakery in Big Sur.
But the surprise standout for both flavor and value was Sir & Star at the Olema Inn in Point Reyes. Definitely bookmark it for your next trip – I am still thinking about everything I ate there, but especially the dinner rolls… I am determined to get the recipe before I host Thanksgiving this year!
And if you do get your hands on it, please do share it with us. ; )
Sounds like you had a terrific trip — at least as far as eating goes. Thanks for the tasty postcard.
And thanks, also, for your recommendation of the Clifton Inn. Sounds like a very fun time. And begging them to stop serving you food! — I love it.
FAVORITE CHEESESTEAK OR STEAK AND CHEESE?:
Cheesesteaks, or steak and cheese subs, or whatever: who makes your favorite in the area?
Just to make things more interesting, the following caveats apply: value IS a factor, so some a hypothetical wagyu cheesesteak would actually have to be THAT much better than its sub-shop counterpart to justify its (also hypothetical, but inevitable) ridiculous price tag. “Authenticity” — Philadelphia or otherwise — is NOT a factor.
Basically, I’m craving greasy food, thus proving the article making the rounds that fans of losing football teams wind up eating terrible things. (http://ftw.usatoday.com/2013/09/study-nfl-fans-losing-teams-fat-obese-fans/)
But makes sense, right? It’s the chow equivalent of drowning your sorrows. When you drown your sorrows, you’re sure as hell not drowning them with something that’s got Fernet Branca in it. You’re not drowning them with a $14 craft beer, or knocking back glass after glass of CdP. You’re just … drinking. Simple beer. Cold. Cheap. Lots of it.
So, cheesesteaks/steak and cheeses. The best one — and it’s actually not close — is the one at Ray’s to the Third, in Arlington.
We just did a piece in the magazine on the top 25 sandwiches in the area — the current issue; pick it up — and not only was it our steak and cheese pick, it was our favorite sandwich across the categories. A sandwich that understands what a sandwich is supposed to be. A sandwich that is more than just the sum of its high-quality parts. A sandwich that is not content simply to make you like it and enjoy eating it; it wants to overwhelm you, and make you love it and never forget it.
MANDALAY, COMING SOON TO SHAW:
Excited for the new Burmese restaurant to open in Shaw…do you enjoy the Manadaly in Silver Spring? I’ve never had Burmese food before- what are the best dishes to order??
Mandalay has never really been the same since leaving College Park. That was a special little scene they had, and the family vibe was evident from the moment you stepped in. The brothers Myint, one gruff but lovable, the other cherubic and charming; the kindly father who sometimes made the rounds; mom, cooking in the back.
Then the family moved to Silver Spring, and though the family made a nice attempt to carry over the feeling from College Park, it was not the same in the new space. The dining room was larger, and more sprawling, and that meant hiring people outside the family. It’s possible to have a meal there, now, and never see any of the siblings.
That family-sense was a large part of what made the place special. That and the cozy digs in College Park. There were, and are, very good dishes, but there were, and are, some thoroughly ordinary ones, too. Order smartly, and you can have a very good meal. And an inexpensive one. But I miss the old days of the place.
As for best dishes … the salads, for sure. Burmese salads are wondrously intricate, with a variety of textures, and if you don’t build your meal around them — two, at least — then you’re doing it wrong.
I’d also lock in on noodle dishes, particularly dishes made with wide noodles. And a dish of chicken with mustard greens is pretty obligatory.
Shweji is the dessert to get; mama Myint is the only one who makes it. It’s a cream of wheat tart, which probably doesn’t sound all that appealing, but imagine a kind of budino — creamy, with cinnamon, and raisins, and a nice top layer of chew.
MA PO TOFU AND DAN DAN NOODLES …:
Oh god, the ma po tofu and dan dan noodles from Sichuan Jin River. I will think of nothing else all day.
You and me both.
Have you ever had Peter Chang’s ma po?
If you haven’t, you need to put it at the top of your visit list. It’s richer and smokier than everybody else’s, and so much more irresistible.
RESTAURANT CRITICS AND ANONYMITY:
Some local restaurant critics seem to be more concerned with chasing celebrity or dollars than with replicating the experiences of their readers.
Here’s the WaPo critic on a recent chat rationalizing the “fuss [Jose Andres] made at my table at Jaleo” by saying that he “learned a few things that I can eventually pass along to readers, and that’s more important to me than keeping a chef at arm’s distance.”
And eater.com reported yesterday that the Baltimore Sun critic will be hosting a $75/per person dinner for restaurant owners and chefs to discuss dining trends, and quotes him as saying “I don’t pretend that I’m perfectly anonymous.”
You seem to have (so far) resisted this trend, which appears to be perfectly acceptable in a world leached of privacy by social media (with a little help from the NSA), but you must be recognized from time to time. How do you adjust for this in your assessment of a restaurant?
A meaty question.
First of all, I don’t think that the things I can learn from a chef or restaurateur in direct, face-to-face conversation (which I don’t do) matter more than standing back and trying to understand a restaurant in the larger sense. I don’t serve the industry. Contrary to what some chefs think, I’m not here simply to annotate what they are doing with their dishes.
Nor do I think a critic exists simply to say “this is good” or “this is bad.” A critic exists to explain. To contextualize. To situate. To provide perspective. To interpret.
All these things I’m talking about require — well, to begin with, a lot of eating around, in all corners of the area (something no Yelper or blogger is capable of) and around the country as well; a deep immersion in the culture of the moment, and not just the food culture; a penchant for connecting the dots; and, maybe the most important thing of all — distance; a desire to keep apart from the chatter and the parties in order to see what has to be seen.
Hosting a dinner to discuss trends with chefs and owners? Ugh.
That’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s cheerleading. It’s fraternizing. Might as well just impale yourself on a dinner fork and be done with it.
As for making adjustments, mostly being recognized means more service. That’s an easy adjustment to make; I can look around the room, walk around the room, and see what sort of attention other tables are getting. And going multiple times, at different times of the week and at different times of day, means that, even if you have been made — to use the parlance of the spy world and the critic world — you are testing the system in a rigorous way.
FOLLOWING UP: DANIEL, IN NYC:
I’m happy to report that our visit to Daniel in New York was excellent. The food was excellent as was the serivce (including all of the particulars mentioned in Wells’ review) and we even got a visit from Daniel himself, who was glad handing some social climbers at the table next to us.
In the wake of the Wells review, I would imagine things have tightened up a little bit more up there. You were the beneficiaries, clearly.
Thanks for the report.
I’ve been craving the following lately and have been unable to track these dishes down. any ideas?
Cau Lao Com Hen Tamarind Crab Curry Crab or thai style spicy soft shell crab salad Thai Noodle Soup – not pho. Thai style is porky, not beefy, and happens to be delicious. Lad Na
A few weeks back you were on a best banh my hunt if I recall…which place won out?
The Thai Noodle Soup and lad na — make a trip to Nava Thai, in Wheaton.
The others are, to the best of my knowledge, absent from the scene. Unfortunately. I can well understand your cravings.
And yes — my banh mi hunt. Good of you to remember. The place that won out is Banh Mi DC Sandwich, in Falls Church. Runner-up, and it was close, is Nhu Lan, also in Falls Church (inside the Eden Center).
CRUSHED, IN THE MOST LOVELY OF WAYS, WITH RESTAURANT OPENINGS …:
We have been crushed, in the most lovely of ways, with restaurant openings.
Our experience at new places has been good, however nothing seems to eclipse the highly touted favorites such as Komi, Fiola, Mintwood, Blue Duck, etc. Are any of the recent openings going to give last year’s top 10, or the theoretical top 25, a run for their money?
It’s tough to sort through the clutter to find the few that are truly special.
Ps We do have an upcoming reservation at The Red Hen, thinking this would make your shortly list… and as always, thanks so much for the wonderful chat! You make Tuesday look good!
How sweet of you. Thank you.
It’s an interesting question. We’ll just have to see.
I don’t know about top 10, but Red Hen, I would think, is a candidate for making the top 25. It’ll be interesting to see how steady a ship Le Diplomate can be, as the crowds grow and staffers come and go. Kapnos, to me, is not in that mix at the moment; things can always change, however, so who knows in a month or two? Bearnaise may not even make the top 100; at my last meal there, the weakest thing on the table, by far, was the steak (and this is a steak frites restaurant). Casa Luca keeps evolving — becoming a little looser, a little more lusty; all good things, and I hope it continues in that direction. Maketto is in a long term pop-up situation at Hanoi House: I thought it was a
big disappointment; too little pop and ping in the flavors.
Table: a strong darkhorse. Doi Moi, Thally and Baby Wale: all are still too new for me to say, but I’m intrigued by their potential.
SPEAKING OF CONTEXTUALIZATION …:
In the interest of not bashing your competitor Mr Sietsma, something you’ve always been careful not to do, I think the snippet that your chatter posted is out of context. Below is the full response which I find much more reasonable: “Mr. Andres and I go way back, to a time before I became food critic. Was I a little uncomfortable about the fuss he made at my table at Jaleo earlier this week? I was. But the chef is a big personality, and I understand his enthusiasm. Plus, I also learned a few things that I can eventually pass along to readers, and that’s more important to me than keeping a chef at arm’s distance. I enjoy almost all my (typically telephone) interaction with the men and women who cook in this town and beyond. At the same time, I never go into a restaurant expecting to talk to anyone other than my waiter.”
Thanks for this.
I would argue that keeping a chef at arm’s distance is much more important than learning some tidbits to pass on to readers.
DAN DAN NOODLES, CONT.:
So now I have to convince my wife to head down to Fredericksburg for a dish she doesn’t particularly care for. Wish me luck.
But now that we’re on topic, let’s rank some dan dan noodles! SJR’s are good, A+J’s are better. Who has the best?
P.S. I just went 0 for 4 on captchas. Is someone going to come give me the Voigt-Kampff test now?
And then we’ll administer the Myers-Briggs.
Actually, if you’ve ever taken that test, how about sharing with us your four-letter handle before posting in the comment box. “Hi, it’s Arlene from Silver Spring. I’m an ENFP … “
Dan dan noodles! Joe’s Noodle House makes a very good one. Better than A&J’s. Hong Kong Palace, which, contrary to its name, is actually a Szechuan Palace, makes a good one, too.
As for your wife, don’t tell her that you’re heading all that way for ma po tofu. Tell her you’re heading that way for bamboo fish, cumin lamb, and scallion bubble pancake.
FISH TACO — NEW, IN CABIN JOHN:
Have you tried Fish Taco in Cabin John? I went last week, and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food, particularly given that it’s pretty reasonably priced (by DC standards).
I wouldn’t necessarily travel out of the way for it, but we live not to far away and it’s a nice addition to the area for a quick weeknight meal. Oh, and we saw Wolf Blitzer while we were there.
Also, please pass along my compliments to Jessica Voelker. I stumbled across her Top Chef Masters blog recently – she’s a funny lady.
She is, she is.
She’s also a lot of fun to make laugh. I’m really happy she’s at the magazine.
Speaking of funny: Wolf Blitzer eating a taco. I mean, right? Because I have to imagine that he was wearing a tie when he was doing it. Possibly with his tie flung over his shoulder (bizarre thing), but probably not.
There are men you can imagine in t-shirts, and men you cannot. And Wolf Blitzer is a man I cannot imagine in a t-shirt, ever. And if I’m wrong on this, which I don’t think I am, then I imagine him to be one of those men who, even when wearing a t-shirt, still looks like he’s wearing a tie.
DOI MOI — NEW, ON 14TH ST.:
Hi Todd, had dinner at Doi Moi last week.
Really enjoyed the house made tofu and wild mushroom curry. The tofu was lovely and custardy. The dish came with little eggplants, bamboo shoots, snake beans, lime leaf, and incendiary clusters of green peppercorns. The kind of dish where you lick the plate clean, despite the burn of your tongue. The stir fried morning glory made for a nice side dish.
Unfortunately the Thai street food inspired small plates were indeed small and overpriced. Can someone please jump the shark on small plates.
Wait, you’re saying the shark has not already been jumped?
THE MOST CONSISTENT RESTAURANTS IN THE CITY?:
A typically excellent meal at Palena last week got me wondering, what are the most consistent restaurants in the city? I can’t remember a limp plate of pasta or an under-seasoned burger in all of the times I’ve eaten there.
Johnny’s Half Shell.
I’m so pleased to be able to join part of your chat in real-time. I’d like to know what you think about how valid bloggers are in today’s world?
For the record, I am not a blogger. I am on the fence about the subject. A few years ago, I really disliked them, as I thought they tended to be self-serving random people who probably knew very little about xyz subject but pretended to be an expert. I’m sure there are examples of this that still do exist.
At the same time, I have to move forward with technology, social media and the times. I think there are a small handful of bloggers who either do know what they are talking about or have illustrated over time that they are good at what they do and have some knowledge or innate sense about xyz subject. Many, though, to my mind, are what I perceived in the beginning – a vast wasteland.
I am wondering how you think bloggers have changed (added or detracted) from a critics job or an expert’s job, what they have added (perhaps from a missing vantage) to an industry or where the future of blogging will go and what changes might come to bloggers and from bloggers? Thanks for your insight.
It sounds simple to say, but it really all does depend on the blogger.
Good writing is good writing, and I really don’t care where it appears.
There are very good bloggers. There are many, many, many, many crappy bloggers.
A lot of blog writing about food is really dull, a predictable recitation of meals from start to finish with flat, distorted pictures of the dishes and little descriptions beneath them — “this dish worked really well, I like how balanced the flavors were, etc.” I guess there are people who want to read that; I don’t.
There are food bloggers who are not dull, but then they tend to write in a very NOW voice that is full of false energy. Reading more than a few paragraphs of that kind of writing makes my head hurt. And then there’s the fact that so many of these meals that are being written about are being funded by the restaurants themselves.
The future of the food critic may not be real bright. Papers are failing, and although magazines are, generally, in better shape, they are not as robust as they were. But being a blogger critic is not something I suspect you’re going to be seeing. It takes too much money. Which means corners have to be cut, which means the would-be blogger critic ends up attending media dinners and making the rounds of various functions around town. Or accepting ads on a website, compromising claims of independence. Or both.
WOLF BLITZER, CONT.:
I’ve seen him at the Wizards game…front row, in his suit and tie, click click clicking away on his Blackberry. Not surprising at all, but really? Why bother going? He probably doesn’t even take off his tie when he sleeps.
I’ve seen the same.
Yeah — why bother? To say you went?
I’ve gotta run, everyone. Thanks so much for all the hungry-making tips and reviews, and for all the food-for-thought as well.
And to all the members of the tribe reading along, I wish you an easy fast and a happy couple of days with your families.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next week at 11 …[missing you, TEK … ]