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 was a finalist for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, and recently took home first-place honors for feature writing from the Association of Food Journalists.
Kliman 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
MOVING AT THE END OF THE MONTH; IN NEED OF A QUIET, NOT-TOO EXPENSIVE PLACE TO GO W/ THE IN-LAWS:
Hi and thanks for such wonderful chats!
My husband & I are moving to Brussels at the end of this month. We’re going out to dinner with his folks next week and I wondered if you could recommend a good place to go. Not too expensive and must be on the quieter side.
I’m leaning towards good American, Southern American, or South American food since those will be hard to get in our new home country. VA preferred if possible.
What about The Majestic, in Old Town, for refined American comfort food in a snazzy retro-style diner?
Or Vermilion, also in Old Town, for local-conscious cooking that is unpretentious and often soulful and almost always rewarding?
A couple of notches down, there’s RT’s in Alexandria for Cajun cooking. Fun place, not real expensive, and a cuisine I doubt you’re going to see much of in a few months. There’re a few things on the menu I really like, though it does get overrich quick and there’s a lot of fry.
DINING IN BEIJING, ET. AL. …:
Do you or any of your readers have any suggestions for eating in Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai?
I would say definitely consider the Chinese food. ; )
Wish I could help, but I have no doubt that there are some knowledgeable people out there with good (and probably fresh) recommendations.
FOOD AND ETIQUETTE: HOMEMADE VS. STOREBOUGHT …:
cooking and food etiquette yet again…the past two summers at our neighborhood block party I brought crack pie (Momofuku Milk Bar recipe) and pulled pork with cabbage (a Hawaiian recipe known as Kahlua pig).
Both times they were snubbed in favor of Popeye’s chicken and store bought desserts. I honestly have just given up….it seems like there is a subset out there for whom food is not something they think about and who wouldn’t realize they were snubbing someone when refusing a freshly made meal.
I don’t blame you — that’s disheartening.
Hard to believe, too, and yet I hear stories about this very thing all the time.
You gave people the unknown. They want the known.
When you say “snubbed,” I’m curious to know — do you mean they went entirely uneaten, or just that they were only lightly touched?
I’m also curious to know — and this is for a broader discussion, so, please, everyone feel free to add your answer into your questions, or just chime in if you have an opinion:
I was talking recently with a friend about how, when you invite someone over to dinner nowadays, they almost always ask: “What can I bring?”
What accounts for that, do you think?
I know I and others who love to cook are not keen on hearing it. Because when we invite people over, we are intent on putting together a coherent meal, and we want to handle everything that that entails. Right?
Unless what is brought is a little something at the end, or a little something at the beginning, it creates a kind of potluck meal, a hodgepodge.
I’ve never heard anyone say: “What can I bring? — and please tell me what you’re preparing; I’d like whatever I bring to fit in seamlessly.”
My theory on “what can I bring?” is that it lets the guest off the hook, in effect, the guest is taking part in the meal and therefore is not obligated to invite the host to dinner in the future.
Re: THE MOTHERSHIP — COLUMBIA HEIGHTS:
Todd – Have you tried Mothership yet and if so, what did you think?
I love the space, love that unlike a lot of spaces that want so badly to create a particular mood and vibe it doesn’t appear to be trying too hard, love the warmth and friendliness of the staff.
I’ve only been once, so take that into account when I say what I have to say about the food. I had four or five dishes, and the lingering impression is that Mothership, like Kangaroo Boxing Club, like the now-shuttered Sauca, hasn’t quite made the jump from truck to brick-and-mortar.
The menu is fun, a kind of globe-trotting tour of various parts of the world. The flavors are zingy. The food has kick. Like a lot of truck food, it seems designed to wow you in the first few bites. By bites seven and eight — and I’m talking about a lot of truck food, not all, but a lot — or by the time the plate has cooled a bit, I’m much less interested, because the layers, the foundational layers, aren’t there.
I’m interested in returning. And I hope I just ordered some of the weaker items that first time.
POSTCARD FROM … THE EASTERN SHORE:
Brief update from a few days on the eastern shore:
Jordan Lloyd and his crew at Bartlett Pear Inn are killing it right now: they are eager, extremely excited about their food, and thrilled to take you along for the ride. We spent a few days with them and were blown away by their enthusiasm coupled with Jordan’s Michel Richard honed skills.
His use of local sources isn’t revolutionary, but Lloyd is passionate about relying on his local connections, and knows the entire history behind the pig he’ll be serving for dinner, or the farmer who grows his garlic. And while he’s not doing anything truly revolutionary in the food, he’s hitting even the basics with a touch of polish and dash that makes them stand out.
For example, Lloyd offers escargot removed from the shell, sauced with a veal jus and laid over puff pastry in a dish that brings to mind a meat raisin – a little pop of intense flavor that both surprises and delights.
He serves a gorgeous skirt steak from a Duroc pig: perfectly cooked and fork-tender.
What makes it fun is that the same attention to detail is present even at breakfast: toasted homemade brioche as a base for thick cut, hand-cured bacon, floating poached eggs and a fluffy, light, lemon chive hollandaise reminds you what eggs benedict should be…and so often is not. We’ll be back for sure.
Other fun finds in Easton: Julia’s is a local sandwich shop that’s nestled in the back of a house behind Washington street. We had overstuffed sandwiches with a great brioche, braised short ribs, mushroom ragout, caramelized onions and chapel creamery cheddar; as well as a mushroom melt with balsamic, smoked gouda, and thick ciabatta. Not fancy, but a seriously great sandwich.
And Andrew Evans’ BBQ joint is still better than it needs to be (once you get past the shavings-on-the-floor cheesiness).
In St. Michael’s, while Talbot 208 and Ava’s still do a nice job, there’s a little spot called Gina’s that is vegetarian friendly and more interesting than most anything else you’ll find in town. You’d expect to see Gina’s in Asheville or Boulder, rather than on the eastern shore, but they are quirky in ways that make you want to work your way through their menu (shout-outs for gingery fish tacos on homemade tortillas and roasted avocado stuffed with chili).
I’m ravenous, reading this.
That escargot dish sounds pretty great.
What a fantastic job you did of bringing your tasty travels alive. Thanks so much.
I love having these postcards every week. Wish we had more.
BEIJING, ET. AL., CONT.:
Hi Todd, a couple Shanghai dumpling recommendations…because when in China you must have dumplings.
Nan Xiang Xiolong Mantou – for Xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) located near the City God Temple and the Yu Yuan Garden in Shanghai’s old town.
Xiao Yang’s (Yang’s Fried Dumplings) – pan fried dumplings with 12 locations around Shanghai. Most locations are take-out style with a few counter stools.
See? I knew someone would emerge from the wings with something for us.
Thanks; I appreciate it.
THANKSGIVING DINNER — WHERE SHOULD I GO TO AVOID THE STRESS AND MESS?:
My family is coming to town for Thanksgiving this year, and we would like to avoid the stress and mess by going out to eat.
Where can we go in DC or Arlington for a classic Thanksgiving menu at a reasonable price (not as casual as Hill Country, but not as pricey as the Ritz).
Thank you for your recommendations!
The two restaurants that would top my list would be Blue Duck Tavern and Vidalia.
Both have served T-Day dinner for a while, now, and both have the kind of menus I’d be looking for — full of dishes that are familiar enough, but also tweaked enough, to warrant going out and spending that kind of coin.
They both have seasoned staffs, too, the kind that can make you feel taken care of on a day that — despite your inclination to get away from it all — you may nevertheless still find yourself pining for home.
HOMEMADE VS. STOREBOUGHT, CONT.:
In response to your question re “snubbed” I mean totally uneaten in the case of the pork and maybe 10% eaten re: pie….
However, my homemade macaroni and cheese killed at my daughter’s pasta party for her cross country team.
When guests ask me what to bring I say “wine” and specify white or red or French bread if appropriate to the meal.
So it wasn’t that they only picked at these dishes — they really did ignore them. Dishes that cost you money, and time, and effort.
That’s awful. Where was this block party, if I might ask? I mean — what city or town?
I’d have to think twice about attending another one, if I experienced the same thing. Might even turn me against my neighbors for a time.
DIFFERENT RESTAURANTS, SAME OWNER:
Going to places that have the same owner has led me to ask this question. I have found that there are some restaurants that have average to well-below average service AND have the same owner(s). I can only wonder if this is a trickle-down effect from the top down.
I’m not sure it’s something that could be attributed to DC’s random pool of waitstaff, where you’ll have some good ones and bad ones. I think that the reach here is beyond the random pool of potential employees but perhaps goes to the heart of the employer. The reverse, I think, is also true. Not in DC, but some of the restaurants that have some of the best service or exemplary service I know that the owners/management take good care of their restaurant staff–and it shows in the way the staff treat the customers.
What do you think?
Many restaurateurs will disagree with me, but if there’s a problem with the staff, or even just one server, or even just one server on one night, it’s the person at the top who is to blame.
Restaurateurs and chefs in this city like to bemoan the talent pool when it comes to service staff. I understand their complaint — this isn’t New York or Las Vegas, cities where you waiters and waitresses with a lot of experience are to be found in abundance.
But I also know, from talking with people who work service jobs and also friends who work these jobs, that seldom are they given enough training. You mentioned “taking good care of their staff,” by which I assume you mean compensating them well, and giving them benefits. I’m talking simply training them properly. “Properly” meaning methodically, and giving them enough time to absorb the lessons, and allowing them a chance to feel like part of the team. Letting them not merely sample a corner of some of the dishes but actually try them, so that they don’t then show up at the table and tell you, the diner, what’s “popular.”
Many restaurateurs will tell you that this is costly, and they are loath to do it for that reason. Well, that and the fact that they are almost always pressed for time, and when on the verge of opening have maybe a week, at most, to train.
The thinking seems to be that this is the kind of luxury that a Thomas Keller or Danny Meyer can absorb, but that anybody on a lower level — which is pretty much anybody else — cannot afford to.
And yet then they lament the talent pool.
I hear all the time how much service matters. But there’s often not that much behind those words.
If I were a restaurateur, I would not look upon my servers as “servers.” I would look upon them as “ambassadors for the restaurant.” Most diners will never meet the chef. Few, if any, will interact with a GM. This is the face of the restaurant. And that face is often someone who was just pulled in off the street a week before a place opens — a place that was on an architect’s drawing board for more than a year; a place that costs, in some cases, seven figures; a place whose launch involved trips abroad and countless research.
Remarkable, yes? And yet not remarkable at all. Because it’s simply the way it goes.
If they were thought of as ambassadors of the restaurant, and given the training and support and benefits that go along with being the face of the restaurant, then things might be very, very different.
RESTAURANTS FOR A WEDDING RECEPTION FOR 75-90?:
Do you have any recommendations for a wedding reception at a restaurant in D.C. or Northern Virginia? We will have between 75-90 guests and plan to serve a vegetarian menu with fish options. We’re looking for a nice space that will put out good food and have some room to dance but won’t break the bank.
David, the first place I’d check would be with the folks at Poste, a Kimpton property in the Hotel Monaco, cattycorner from the Verizon Center.
From what I know of them, and of the space, and of the kitchen, I think it might be a good fit.
Good luck, and congratulations!
DINNER AND NIHILISM:
Did you see the story this morning on the Eater feed about Alex Stupak and the criticism he says he got for opening a Mexican restaurant? I thought this quote was pretty interesting. “They thought I was taking a step back or thought it was me taking the easy way out. There was a ton of absurdity to it. I’m very much an anarchist and a nihilist and I believe that people are basically sheep. They govern most of their decisions out of fear.”
And raises an interesting question — do you want a nihilist cooking your dinner that costs $150?
Wouldn’t that, properly speaking, be an empty plate?
Also: can you be an anarchist and also the owner of several restaurants?
I agree with him that people are basically sheep. But nothing news there.
Thanks for passing this along.
SERVICE AND MANAGEMENT, CONT.:
Todd, thanks for taking my question about service in DC-area restaurants.
To clarify, when I said “take good care,” I did not specifically mean compensate well. Even in other cities, waitstaff are not compensated well but are compensated well by their tips and I’m not talking about standard-issue tips, but tips earned from delivering top-notch service, no matter if a high-end establishment, a chain or a mom-and-pop neighborhood establishment. When I said “take good care” I mean where owners/management treat them as civilized workers or even almost-familial-like (in the best possible way).
It really showers down all the way from the top to the customer, so if a restaurant is truly customer-driven, this is how it should be done. As for Thomas Keller or Danny Meyer and the thinking is that these restaurateurs can afford to do this, let me say that before they had multiple stellar restaurants, they were doing this, which is one of the reasons that have excellent restaurants. They understand that service is an important part of the entire experience. They did not earn their reputation from media and television fame first.
As for the point of training–well, that should be a given. I know here in DC it is not necessarily a given. And, sadly, it shows.
The training is, from all that I hear, done very quickly, and not methodically.
And there simply isn’t enough of it.
And there isn’t support to follow.
And many, many servers don’t know the menu — know it the way you, the diner, would hope that they would know it; having tasted and spent time with the dishes, all the dishes, and developed a knowledge of the combinations and what the chef is going for.
Thanks for your comments. You’re absolutely right.
By compensation, I didn’t mean money, by the way; granting of benefits is a big thing. Sadly, it is also a very, very rare thing.
Back to dish-knowledge for a second. How often do you go to a restaurant and hear a server rattle off the components of a dish — every constituent part, no matter how small, in a spiel that lasts uncomfortably long. You get a sense, listening to them talk and talk, of how a dish is put together, but what’s lacking? What these things all add up to. How they blend, how they cohere, what they taste like.
EATING IN SHANGHAI & T-DAY DINNER, CONT.:
With respect to the Shanghai recommendations, I wonder how the original poster is going to find the recommended restaurants since presumably they don’t have signs written in the western alphabet (not trying to be snarky, I’m actually genuinely curious).
With respect to Blue Duck Tavern, I agree it’s the sort of place that would probably knock Thanksgiving dinner out of the park, but I’m not sure I’d describe it as reasonably priced. I recently went to lunch there and paid $38 for four shrimp.
Heads-on, though, yes? And probably pretty sizable, no?
Not saying you got good value; it sounds overpriced even given the things I’m saying to defend it.
As for BDT, I hear you — though I will say that most options for dining out on that day are gonna cost you. One of the most inexpensive last year was the prix-fixe dinner at Liberty Tavern, in Arlington. $29 for adults; $18 for kids. That’s pretty reasonable, I’d say, given what’s out there. And with chef Liam LaCivita’s gift for breads and refined heartiness on the plate, I think it’d be a very good fit for the big day.
EATING IN BEIJING, CONT.:
Hi Todd –
I wanted to send in a recommendation for the person traveling to China. We just got back from a few weeks in Beijing. We eat out a lot when we are there; however, I am not fluent in Mandarin, nor do I know exactly where most of the places are.
One place that I remember specifically and have been to almost every time we visit is called Nala, near Fragrant Hills park in Beijing. They have amazing food in a great setting, but the pork belly and shrimp dishes are stand outs. Here is some info: https://foursquare.com/v/%E9%82%A3%E5%AE%B6%E7%9B%9B%E5%AE%B4-nala-restaurant/4d ce82f7c65bdac7136252f3/photos
Can you send along another link? I couldn’t call up the page.
Eager to see some of those dishes … Thanks for the tip.
I can’t speak to the kitchen now, but when my husband and I got hitched in 2010, we held a brunch reception at the Monaco, catered by Poste, and they did a fabulous job — from the planning to the tasting to the event. That was a smart suggestion.
(And, actually, we matched the request pretty closely — around 75 people and a vegetarian and fish meal).
Good to hear! Thanks for writing in.
I do want to point out, however, that Rob Weland was still the chef in 2010, so it was a different operation, but as you know there is so much more to putting a thing like that together than just preparing the menu. And I can’t imagine the menu would be disappointing, given the fact that the expectation for most wedding reception banquets is not exactly high.
BEIJING EATS, CONT. — WITH A GOOD LINK!:
here is another link…hard to find any info on some of these places. hope it works. apparently there are 3 locations but the one near the park is the best Nala Restaurant B58 Maimai St. (Near Fragrant Hills Park) http://paulstravelpics.blogspot.com/2011/11/beijing-food-trip-part-5-imperial.html
I’ve also ventured out in shopping malls and food courts to explore food in Beijing. The Golden Resources mall is h-u-g-e and has to have over 50 restaurants plus a very decent food court with another 20 stalls. Most of these places specialize in regional cuisines and serve menus with upwards of 200 hundred dishes (with pictures!). Not a bad way to get a broad range of food, but also not a very touristy place to visit.
Some fantastic-looking food. Thanks for the working link.
The roast pork in sesame flatbread, the crunchy-skinned shrimp, the deep-fried cream puffs … all look great.
And I’d love to try the Rolling Donkey. Great name, and it looks as though it’s surprisingly light, too, despite being a chewy, gluteny thing.
Thanks, everyone, for your time and comments and questions and tips today. I appreciate all of it. And just as a heads-up, I want to re-start some of our contests, as a way of recognizing and honoring some of the interesting, thoughtful writing that you all do on here every week — in the postcards you post, and could be posting more of (hint, hint), but also elsewhere. So look for that in the coming weeks. Meantime …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]