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.
He 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
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
* Trapezaria, Rockville
The kind of big-hearted restaurant that takes you to another place (Baltimore? St. Louis?) and maybe another time (late’ 70s). Come on a weekend night, when there’s a two-piece band and the place is humming and you’ll feel as if you’ve just crashed a wedding reception. I love the GM in coat and tie who shows you to your table, maitre d’-style. I love the waitress who turned to me one night when I was trying to decide between a lamb dish on the menu and a lamb dish that was a special, and said, “Listen. Listen to me,” and insisted I order the latter. She was right. The meat was rich and juicy and drenched in a lemon-spiked gravy. Alongside it: lemon roasted potatoes and green beans cooked with tomato and mint. True to the homestyle nature of the place, you couldn’t see any white space on the plate. Another great dish is the fried cod, delicately light, with a fluff of skordalia in the center, a sit-down Greek fish and chips. The menu has no weak spots, as far as I can tell. I’ve been three times, now, and nearly everything that has come out of the kitchen has ranged from the good to the terrific. Vegetarians can revel here. Iman bayaldi, a dish of roasted eggplant drenched in cinnamon-spiced tomato sauce, has the tight, knitted flavor of expert long-cooking. It comes in a massive portion, and costs just $7. There are stuffed grape leaves without the ground beef, filled with well-cooked rice and pine nuts and wrapped in fresh-tasting leaves that still have some good chew to them. If it takes wrapping up some food for leftovers in order to manage dessert, then do it. The version of galaktobouriko — presented in small, crunchy pieces, almost like bites of fudge — is one of the best I’ve eaten in years; the baklava (served warm, and nearly spilling its crunchy, nutty, sticky filling) is stunning; and the centerpiece of the yogurt with honey and walnuts is a scoop that has been strained almost to the consistency of a cheese, with a tanginess that goes on and on and on.
The new king of Koreatown. This is the best Korean barbecue out there right now, served up by a slew of young, t-shirted staffers in a rollicking, industrial setting. Go for the marinated pork ribs.
Bangkok Golden, Falls Church
I was tempted to say this a while back, but didn’t. I will now, after a recent knockout visit: I’d rather go here, for the Lao menu, than Little Serow. The range of tastes is vast, and every plate is alive with flavor — bright and pungent and smoky and funky. Not to mention crunch and heat. Not to mention a shorter wait and a lighter bill (my recent meal of four dishes and a beer, pre-tax: $43).
Rose’s Luxury, DC
I love the crackle in the room when you walk in. I’m not talking about mere noise; lots of restaurants have noise. I’m not even talking about buzz, that sense that a new place is hot. This one has an energy that is unmistakable, a sense that you have entered a kind of rare and cherished zone where the enthusiasm of the kitchen and the staff is returned in kind by the diners, who all seem to walk out the door with smiles on their faces. It’s not hard to understand why. Rose’s Luxury has an old-school vibe, and a sort of making-it-up-as-we-go-along feel, from the homey, unassuming way the menu bids you to settle in and order to the dinner party-run-amok vibe to the yahrzeit-look-alike votives to the beer glasses that are sawed-off wine bottles. The chef, Aaron Silverman, logged stints in such high-profile kitchens as Momofuku in New York and Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, and you don’t have to look hard to see elements of each of these places in the room and on the plate. Like his mentors David Chang and Sean Brock, he aims to bring off a marriage of extreme playfulness and extreme precision. The bulk of the menu consists of a dozen small plates in which Silverman sets out to cross the wires, compositionally speaking, and see what happens. A pate is a braiding of French, Italian (garlic bread are the toasts), Vietnamese (the rich, crushed-peanut topped spread brims with star anise), and I want to say Jewish (the brine for the jalapenos, onions and cukes that add crunch and tang tastes deli to me). It’s seamlessly done, and highly addictive. He crosses high and low in a soup that tastes at once like liquefied popcorn and a delicate lobster veloute (the sweetness calls out for some sort of counterbalancing ingredient, or more lobster). It’s not all derring-do. His gnocchi are more properly a kind of ravioli, stuffed with fennel and mint, sauced with not-too-much butter and topped with a generous scattering of crunchy toasted breadcrumbs. You’d be hard put to find five better pasta dishes in town right now. The final course is a page not out of Momofuku or Husk or McCrady’s, but out of Komi — share plates for two. In one, you lay luscious slices of perfectly smoked brisket on griddled Texas toast, add on tangy strands of pickled cabbage and smear the whole thing with a fluffy horseradish cream. The other is built around a beautifully brined pork chop — sweet and aromatic and rich as the best pork can be — with potlikker beans and a textbook red-eye gravy. The final act needs re-staging. The lack of a pastry chef doesn’t help, nor does the tendency to over-think and over-embellish. Quenelles of chocolate cream sprinkled with dried rose petals and intended for spreading on slices of charred bread feels twee, not interesting, and hardly satisfies. More of the sink-in simplicity of the share courses would go a long way. Still, this is one of the most exciting debuts of the year. I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of the most exciting debuts of the past three years.
Khan Kabob, Chantilly
The best karahi I’ve had in ages, maybe ever, is a version here made with lamb brains. The brains, for the leery, resemble tiny curds, and the sauce of garlic, ginger, cilantro, tomato and chilis is so concentrated, and so smoky, that even after you’ve had your fill it’s difficult to stop dipping your torn naan into the hammered metal vessel. Tariq Khan, the owner, was for many years part of the Ravi Kabob empire; he’s created a worthy rival.
* new this week
A DISH LIKE TARANTINO OR STONE …?:
I was fascinated by your Jan. 28 description of the past Elisir’s risotto with saffron and veal cheeks, and how the “dish was remarkably, almost unrelentingly intense, the culinary equivalent, I thought, of a Tarantino or Oliver Stone. It seized your attention, and held it, and forced you to reckon with its insistence and power.”
Would you please recommend a few other dishes in DC that embody such a daring presence?
Additionally, I think that your cinematic description would be a playful concept for one of your contests. i.e., Name a local dish that is reminiscent of an auteur and explain why.
Ha. I think that’d be a great idea. I’d really like to bring back our contests — I had fun with them, and I know you all did, too. Who’s with me?
Well, most of you. I did get an email from a reader that said — and I’m doing this off of memory, but I think I’ll be pretty close: “Todd, I tune in to these chats to hear what you have to say about restaurants, not read the amateur contest stylings of the peanut gallery.”
As for a dish that would beggar comparison like that one, you know, I really can’t come up with one at the moment. I thought it was a bold and fascinating dish, and what was bold about it was that it risked alienating people. Food lovers are different, in liking dishes of great intensity. And actually, not all food lovers are like that. But the general public tends to prefer dishes that are familiar and reassuring — dishes that don’t make too many moves or express anything too urgent or intense.
By the way, although I love intensity in art — love art that takes risks and pushes you and is urgent in its appeal —
I really dislike Tarantino and Stone.
So, correction: I love good intensity. With real feeling, and real risk.
And actually, speaking of correction: Last week, in answer to a question about Georgetown’s restaurant scene, I mentioned a number of places but left off Bourbon Steak. I was not making a point. It was, regrettably, a moment of brain-lock. Bourbon Steak would be atop that list.
GOOSE — AGAIN!:
One more goose story!
My college friends and I have a long tradition of spending new year’s eve with each other, either in someone’s home or at a rental. We cook, catch up, shake icy shakers, play games, and spend new year’s day watching the worst movies we can find. It’s a tradition going on almost 20 years, with only a few exceptions.
One year, we held the event at a friend’s house. His wife was determined to cook a goose dinner for new year’s eve. Boy, did she. Same problem with the fat, except the chef had accidentally poked some small fork-tine holes in the foil cooking tray as the birds neared completion. The fat began to drip and the fire roared. Smoke filled the house. Debates were held over whether to call the fire department. BOOM! The oven glass exploded. The fire department was immediately called.
It was such a sad (now funny) scene. The poor chef, 7-months pregnant and wearing an industrial painting mask because of the thick smoke hanging in the air, was crying softly while large men in boots tromped through her house with axes. The rest of us tried to stay out of their way with our martinis.
The rest of the evening was spent picking the tasty, but overcooked, meat off the birds (they had been safely covered in foil – I know, we’re crazy), checking for glass. The rolls were a total loss, as they had been finishing on the top rack.
(Pointy) hats off to firefighters who have to work on NYE and clean up the antics of amateur chefs. Made for another great story to tell and retell, though.
What a great story!
The pregnant woman in a painting mask detail really makes it.
And see, we were just talking about contests — that story is exactly the sort of thing I like to read. I kind of feel we ought to give you a cookbook, now, just for sharing it with us.
I’m going to venture to guess that no movie rental is ever going to come close to being as memorable — no nothing, really, because how could it. You’ll do this for another 40 years, and never have another moment like it.
ANYTHING AT ALL FROM OUR PRE-TEEN FOOD WRITER …?:
Have we heard anything as of late from Andrew, our young aspiring food writer from once upon a time?
You’ve got a helluva memory.
I don’t think we’ve had an Andrew appearance on here in two years, maybe more.
It’s funny, because I did recently get an email from his mother. The family is now living in — and making the adjustment to — Philadelphia. Andrew, she says, is still big into food, but didn’t say whether he’s writing or not. I hope he is.
KHAN KABOB AND KARAHI …:
Re: Khan Kabob —
Liked your review, unlike most people you understand and know karahi 🙂
Well, I love the stuff, so maybe that makes understanding and knowing possible.
But thank you.
I think it’s one of the great dishes of the world. Done right, of course, and Khan does it gloriously right.
TAKE-OUT IN GEORGETOWN?:
Quick Lunch in Georgetown-
I work on the Georgetown waterfront and I hate the lack of carry-out options within walking distance? Can you think of a good call-it-in and pick-it-up option in this general area? Thai? Indian? Pho?
I’ve eaten plenty of meals in my time at George’s King of Falafel and Cheesesteak.
The Moby Dick is not the best of the various locations, but it’ll definitely do for a quick take-out lunch. Get the kabob e kubbideh and rice.
And if neither of those grabs you, then head on over the Key Bridge. I’ve been saying for a while, now, that Clarendon et. al. is basically just a suburb of Georgetown. In Courthouse, there’s Bayou Bakery for sandwiches, gumbo, and shrimp and remoulade. The cookies — David Guas cookies — are great. The pralines would make a Louisianan weep.
CLIENT DINNER FOR 7: WHERE SHOULD I GO?:
I need to take a new client to dinner Thursday night.
Have a suggestion for 7 people, relatively inexpensive, vegetarian-friendly?
What about Trapezaria, which I have a quickie review of up top?
As I mentioned, you can do very well here if you’re abstaining from meat, and at the same time non-abstainers don’t have to feel that they’re making sacrifices.
Plus, the prices are excellent; that lamb special I mentioned, with a heap o’ meat and two sides, cost $20; many dishes are less.
Finally, it’s a very good spot to take a group, especially later in the week when the place fills up.
If you go, and I hope you do, please come back on and let us know how it turned out …
FIELD REPORTS: THAI HOUSE, CUBA DE AYER, SORETTI’S:
We live only minutes from the Thai House in Gaitherbsurg and it’s been an ongoing go-to for us. Lately, there has been such vital, fresh cooking and a new attitude among the staff as well as some minor renovations and improvements.
The crispy tofu in sweet peanut sauce, the smoky pungent pad kee mao, the rich curries. It’s always been good to great with a few outstanding dishes and a few disappointments but lately it’s been spot on and is, in my opinion, worth venturing out a bit further for.
I haven’t been to Cuba de Ayer for a while, but there is nothing like a heaping plate of Cuban food on a cold winter day so I made the trip. I was excited to see they have (extensively) expanded and it looks great. It’s lively, friendly, and the food is as good as ever. And now they have plenty of room and a new bar. It’s also very child friendly yet still a nice place to go out to dinner — and kudos for them for all of these changes without any increase in prices. Love this place!
Next door, at Soretti’s, is some excellent Ethiopian food which is notable not just for deliciousness. As a professor in nutrition I teach a Food and Culture course and visit some places to eat with my grad students — the caveat being they need to be suitable for people who are (strictly) gluten free, or vegan, or have allergies. Soretti’s has a local woman make 100% teff injera which is gluten free, and all of their veggie dishes are vegan. And they are warm, friendly and the cooking is some of the best I have.
The little strip in Burtonsville with Cuba de Ayer, Maiwand Kebab (the best location I think) and Soretti’s is an excellent place to head for some multi-cultural dining without the crowds, waits, or big city prices.
Bevin, thanks so much for these terrific reports from the field.
I like that little strip a lot, too. It’s good to hear that Soretti’s is offering all-teff injera; more places are beginning to, and I think it’s a great thing, not just for those who can’t stomach the bread otherwise, but also for those who love the cuisine and want to eat what Ethiopians do.
I’ll have to return to Thai House. I’ve had a favorable impression of it, but there wasn’t enough in every meal to make me pound the drum for it. A good neighborhood spot, I thought, with the occcasional dish to surprise you. If they’ve made a leap, that’s exciting.
THE NEW 100 BEST RESTAURANTS ISSUE :
I think the list this year is your fairest yet, and really well done.
I also like the Top 25 format much more than last year’s Top 10. It seems like at least half the spots in the Top 10 are pretty much (for good reason) reserved barring closures or personnel changes at the Komis, Marcel’s and Cityzens of the world, so you weren’t adding a lot to the conversation by singling out only ten mostly-predictable spots. Naming twenty-five does much more.
I am disappointed for the folks at Vidalia, who I think deserved a spot in that Top 25, though. Conversely, I think your recognition of the vastly-underappreciaed Bombay Club was spot on. Same with NoPa, which seemed to me to get an undeservedly rough ride in certain quarters when it opened.
This is a really thoughtful response. Thank you. I appreciate it.
I do want to say that although I absolutely understand the spirit of your point nothing on this list is “reserved.” There are no Restaurants that make it back on, make it back on — that is, they earn it with great, memorable cooking and attentive, genuine service and all the other couple dozen things the food team looks for in taking on the mammoth task of putting together this list.
We start fresh every year, beginning about now. A clean slate for every restaurant in the region. A fresh chance to make a great impression.
DOI MOI AND RESERVATIONS:
A friend in town from New York Thursday. Putting together a dinner for some friends. I know he likes Asian food and was thinking of going to Doi Moi.
I called and they do not take reservations. Is that going to be a huge problem. We would be willing to wait for several minutes (maybe a half hour) for a table. But, don’t want to wait much longer.
Are there other ideas that you would suggest? We would be open to anything (in NW DC).
I hesitate to say this, because you never know what can happen, but I tend to think you’ll be okay and wouldn’t have to wait more than half an hour.
Can you go early? Like, 5:30 or 6. You almost certainly won’t have to wait, or wait much, then. Even 6:30 you should be okay.
Alternatively, you could try Izakaya Seki, just up from U St. on V. How big is your group? If there are 5 of you, then you can make a reservation. If not, the place has been open a while now and is not drawing the hordes of curiosity-seekers that all the other newbies are.
Speaking of high-end Asian … Zentan has a new chef, Jennifer Nguyen, but my recent meal there was pretty underwhelming, with, among other things, some oddly dry-tasting, flavorless sushi.
CHARLOTTESVILLE FOR THE WEEKEND: 2 ADULTS, 4 KIDS — WHERE DO WE GO?:
It’s a crazy question and a long shot — but another mom and I are going away to Charlottesville, VA with our 4 kids (8 months, 1 year, 3 years and 4 years) for the weekend.
Every restaurant’s worst nightmare (well, except McDonalds).
Anyone have any restaurant ideas where we could eat with little wanderers who will be unlikely to stay put and with the moms outnumbered.
If they serve wine / beer you get bonus points.
You could certainly hit Revolutionary Soup without a real worry. Good soups and sometimes stews, locally baked bread, and even (hey) some local wines to wash it all down.
Bodo’s Bagels isn’t dining — it’s even less dining than Revolutionary Soup is dining — but the bagels are good, and the kids can run around and make noise and you (probably) won’t get kicked out.
Both are good lunch spots.
Peter Chang’s China Grill ought to be good for dinner for you and the gang — just don’t count on the master to be in the house.
And, for what it’s worth, I’ve heard some good things about the ‘cue at Ace Biscuit and Barbecue. If you can’t take four kids for barbecue, then there’s no hope in this world.
Hi Todd –
Hope I didn’t miss this. I’m looking to have some chicken noodle soup or similar comfort-for-the-sick food delivered to a sick friend in DC.
If I were you, I would get your friend a bowl of matzo ball soup from DGS Delicatessen. The matzo ball itself is soft and light, and the chicken soup has the clarity and delicacy of a consomme.
Good stuff, and a time-honored salve for the sick.
Also a time-honored salve for the sick: pho. I have my favorites, but they’re all in Virginia or Maryland. Are you near a Pho 75? Or Pho 88 in Beltsville? Or Pho Xe Lua in the Eden Center, in Falls Church?
It shouldn’t matter much, though, because even a pretty good bowl of pho is a great thing. And if you get a broth that’s not top-notch, but load it up with a squirt or four of lime and some Sriracha and hoisin, and top it with torn bits of basil and sprouts, you’re going to have a good time.
A ROBUST COCKTAIL OFFERING, FOR NON-ROBUST PRICES:
I just read about Logan Tavern’s new cocktail menu, offering twists on classic cocktails.
Where are other affordable locations in DC that have a robust cocktail offering, where I won’t be spending $15+ per drink?
Are you saying that you don’t think that a drink should cost the same as an entree?
You do realize, I hope, that eating and drinking are now on par, and that a drink is not something to go with something else, but is, itself, that something?
This notion of a drink that is just a drink — do we really want to go back to a world like that?
Um, let’s see — reasonably priced drinks. I’ve had them at DGS, I’ve had them at Spike Gjerde’s Shoo-fly Diner in Baltimore (home of the $7 Manhattan), I’ve had them at Quarry House (which has a fantastic bourbon and rye selection), I’ve had them at the Mothership, I’ve had them at Red Hen, I’ve had them at Maple.
That’s just off the top of my head. Who can add to our list?
THAT CLIENT DINNER …:
About the 7-person client dinner….
Should have specified that it needs to be in DC. / :
But Trapezaria sounds insanely good so I’ll try that out for an on-my-own-time dinner!
OK, so “relatively inexpensive” but good in DC.
That’s probably the toughest question that I’m ever asked here on this chat.
But let’s see …
Cava on Barracks Row for mezze? Or Ambar, also on Barracks Row, for Balkan small plates? (Yes, Balkan small plates)
Malaysia Kopitiam on M St.?
Tortino on 11th for old-school Italian?
Las Canteras in Adams Morgan for Peruvian?
Either of the Hank’s Oyster Bars?
CHARLOTTESVILLE EATS, CONT. …:
I would consider Pasture in Charlottesville for the diner with kids in tow–small plates format, ( I know, shocking), food is varied and comes out FAST with excellent cocktail menu.
Also Trader Joes shares parking lot so you could stock up on snacks post dinner.
Thanks for chiming in …
Good tips, and another one for the previous chatter to add to her list.
COCKTAILS THAT DON’T COST $15, CONT.:
Reasonably priced drinks Clydes all locations.
If I am paying $15 it better be for 30yo Highland Single Malt
Oh, I hear you.
And yes on Clyde’s.
Though none of the locations fit the chatter’s requirements for a “robust” craft cocktail list.
100 BEST, CONT. …:
Top 100 – 2014
I agree with the previous poster, in that I like the format of this year’s Top 100 by listing out a Top 25.
I am happy to see that Seasonal Pantry made it into the top 15. I was surprised that Bombay Club came in at number 10 and I thought The Red Hen and Mintwood Place would have been a little higher too in the rankings.
I It has been a while since I visited Rasika’s older sibling, The Bombay Club, which peaks my curiosity to see and try the quality of food that is coming out of the kitchen.
Overall, great top 100 this year, and I hope you keep the same format for next year too.
We probably won’t. ; )
In all seriousness, we really do strive to let what we’re seeing on the scene dictate our choices of presentation and format.
So, each year is, we hope, different, because the scene each year is different.
A note about last year. We didn’t just do a Top 10, as you and the other chatter have said. We tried to highlight the work being done in a variety of ways, choosing 10 newcomers we were enthused about, and 10 classics that we love, and 10 places that we were excited to return to again and again, etc.
At the end of countless meetings and conversations about restaurants, we came to the decision that there were about 40 places that we really were high on. And so, for the 2013 edition, we tried to find the best way to convey that.
It was the field as we saw it that dictated that decision. This year the field dictated something different.
COCKTAILS THAT DON’T COST $15, CONT. …:
Robust cocktails, non-robust prices:
My two favorites have always been Tune Inn and Fox and Hounds. But I think I’m using a different definition of robust.
If we had a Comment of the Day, this would be it.
Thanks for chiming in …
NY vs. DC:
Recently moving (back) to DC after years in NYC, I’m struck by how large so many of our restaurants are here. Certainly, there is a growing trend (especially in the neighborhoods) of smaller format places – but by and large, they seem to be exceptions. NYC is filled to overflowing with superb, very small, eateries.
Is it structural, or cultural, drivers that make DC the land of expansive, 200-seat restaurants? And furthermore, would you agree that controlling for other variables, large generally is inversely related to quality? I find most big places can’t pull it off at scale.
Big is hard to do, yes. But you know, small and ambitious and quirkily personal is hard to do well, too. They’re different kinds of hard.
So many places in NYC are so small because that’s what’s available. Space is tight, and more space is prohibitively expensive.
(DC is more like the rest of the country in that regard.)
The profusion, in NYC, of small, not-real-expensive, interesting restaurants, has a lot to do with the culture of the city. People eat out all the time. They live in shoeboxes, with tiny (or non-existent kitchens), and mostly return to their places only to sleep and stuff. Here, people have space. Some people have a lot of space. Things are spread out. The wealth is not concentrated — well, actually it is, it’s very concentrated, but it’s also spread out over parts of Maryland and Virginia as well.
DOI MOI, CONT.:
Actually, Doi Moi takes reservations prior to 6pm. So if you’re the sort of person who can both eat early and wishes to have the certainty of a reservation, that works.
Great. Thanks for chiming in, here.
COCKTAILS THAT DON’T COST $15, CONT. …:
“Robust craft cocktail list,” what a bunch of pretentious garbage.
Any good bar tender should be able to make a decent cocktail or drink. Old fashioned, martini, pina colada, Harvey Wallbanger, or a Flaming Aztec. I could back in the day.
Oh, I hear you — again.
But those aren’t the drinks the people who are drinking, now, want to drink.
The craft cocktail thing, keep in mind, is a different sort of drinking. Not to be too reductive, or to engage in too many broad-brushed generalizations, but the kind of drinking you’re talking about is old-school and male.
The new drinking is not. These drinks are very balanced, and smooth, and often very sweet, and, not surprisingly, you see a lot of women drinking them. You can drink two of them, sometimes, before you notice anything like a buzz beginning.
Thanks for everything, everyone. The tips, the comments, the field reports, the bristling remarks, and yes, even the nastygram I didn’t post. A nastygram that was meant to bruise, but which has made me think, for the past couple of hours, that food is interesting in very large part because it is a chance to bring in the wider world — that to write well about architecture and sports and neighborhoods and culture, etc., is to write about all the things that intersect with those subjects, however much some people might not want to engage with those things.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]