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: firstname.lastname@example.org
W H E R E I ‘ M E A T I N G N O W . . .
* Thai Taste by Kob, Wheaton
On a three-block stretch of Wheaton, near the intersection of University Blvd. and Georgia Ave., can be found two of the area’s best Thai restaurants — Ruan Thai and Nava Thai. Time to add a third. Phak Duangchandr — Kob, to friends — has set up shop in the tiny space that originally contained Nava, in the back of Hung Phat market. Thai food fans may remember her, or at least her cooking; for 19 years she operated the Thai Food Carryout at Thai Market, near the old Safeway in Wheaton. The new setting, electrified with a paint job of orange and day-glo green, gives her a chance to expand her repertoire of dishes, while staying true to the from-scratch traditions that earned her a devoted following. The emphasis is on street food and homecooking, with a good many dishes you simply won’t find anywhere else, like bamee moo daeng, a meal-in-a-bowl of tender egg noodles, red-edged roast pork, baby bok choy, and fish balls; or kai yad sai, an omelette stuffed with ground chicken punched up with fish sauce, soy; or a salad of shrimp paste-flavored rice, onions, cucumber and sweet, sticky pork). But even familiar tastes, taste different here — funkier, more pungent, and definitely hotter (a shrimp fried rice, alive with fistfuls of Thai basil and a generous pinch of chilis, set my heart to racing). Some customers have already been asking for more rice to accompany their orders. Partner and manager Max Praserptmate says he is willing to accommodate any requests, but adds that his aunt’s cooking is not the aberration; it’s the great majority of Thai restaurants that are the aberration. “The taste,” he says, “is what you’re supposed to get from your Thai food.”
Duangchandr imports her spices from Thailand and toasts and grinds them herself. All the condiments on the spice tray, including a terrific chili vinegar, are made on the premises. Meats are given a long soak before hitting the grill — 72 hours, in the case of the pork that is pounded and threaded onto a skewer to create a must-order starter called moo yang. The other must-order starter sure doesn’t sound like it: when was the last time you had fried shrimp wontons that were any good? These are great. Kiew tod comes to the table looking more like a plate of tortilla chips, the mix of shrimp and white pepper bundled within a sneakily rolled edge. The crunch is junk food-loud; it’s hard not to believe they weren’t engineered in a lab. No beer or wine yet; partner; Praserptmate says soon on both. I would take the money you’d ordinarily spend on a drink and spring for an extra dish or two (most are under $10, and many items will survive into the next day).
Bar Pilar, DC
Justin Bittner has moved on; Jesse Miller has replaced him. And one of the coziest, most charming small plates spots in the city just keeps rolling. I’ve been twice in the past month: one meal was great, the other good. I’m not sure there’s a place along 14th St. right now that I’d rather find myself in for a couple of hours. A sweet, crisp-skinned branzino with pecorino custard and pea shoots could have come straight from the Oval Room (makes sense: Miller apprenticed under chef Tony Conte). A rusticky Bolognese, with grilled bread for scooping up the thick, Sunday-style gravy, is maybe the best Italian dish I’ve eaten in months. And though technically the chef’s porchetta is not a porchetta — rabbit, not pig, is deboned, stuffed with its own livers, and encased in a second-skin of bacon to seal in moisture — it’s terrific, a perfect precis of the boldly designed but intricately conceived cooking come out of this kitchen right now.
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.
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
FOLLOWING UP FROM LAST WEEK: RESTAURANT’S WITH ONE GREAT DISH …:
Sopa de Res at Judy Restaurant on 14th Street.
And their plantains, most days.
And the lengua taco.
Pretty much everything is soul-warmingly good, except the margaritas which could stand a major revision sans mix.
Judy’s is a gem. A gem among expensive, mostly mediocre, albeit sometimes good, trendy hotspots.
That’s great to hear. I’ve been wondering about the place, and had it on my mind to drop in one of these days.
Thanks for the tasty report.
This’ll be an abbreviated chat today, everyone — unless you all just pepper me with so many questions and I get so sucked in that I can’t pull myself out. I’m leaving tomorrow for a trip to Ethiopia — can’t wait — and have a few hundred last-minute things to do. I hope you all can understand.
So, quick housekeeping — no chat next week, and, with any luck, I’ll be back in the saddle on Tuesday, March 11th.
If anyone has been to Addis and has some great eating recommendations, please — I’m all ears. It’ll be fun to be the advisee for a change.
HEADED TO NOLA: WHERE DO I TURN?:
I am going to New Orleans for a long weekend for the first time. Where should I eat? Most important, what restaurants should I absolutely not miss?
I really love great food, high and low end. I know you are not the New Orleans critic, but I really trust your taste, and I do not know who in NEw Orleans to read.
Do you have a favorite New Orleans critic? Do your readers have any suggestions.
Look for Brett Anderson’s reviews. Brett is a friend, and was, before this gig — food critic at the New Orleans Times-Picayune — the food critic at The Washington City Paper. I succeeded him there.
He puts out great lists fairly frequently, to keep up with the needs of all those tourists.
I have a list, and it’s composed, in part, from his recs. And in part from my own visits; I love New Orleans.
A quick cheat sheet:
— Donald Link’s two places, Cochon and Herbsaint. Also: Cochon Butcher for sandwiches
— Domenica, in the Roosevelt Hotel; soulful but refined Italian.
— Upperline, a quirky and distinctive spot with good, classic New Orleans cooking.
— Brigtsen’s, another good taste of old New Orleans.
— Sylvain, a good, if too-loud gastropub, in the French Quarter (little, here, in the way of Creole or Cajun cooking).
— La Petite Grocery, Patois and Gautreau’s. Contemporary, determinedly regional, and very assured all around. Excellent.
— Mahoney’s, for po’ boys.
— St. James Cheese Company
— Cassamento’s, classic oyster bar.
Good luck, eat up a storm, and report back.
TRIP TO AFRICA:
What is on the itinerary for your upcoming trip to Africa? Any particular dining spots that you wish to visit or plan on mostly checking out the local cuisine?
The spots I’m looking forward to are mostly in and around Addis Ababa.
I want to visit a couple kitfo houses (I want to watch the women in back hacking up the meat with machetes). I have a list with nearly two dozen spots on it, from traditional restaurants to cafes to coffeehouses (and, yes, one burger joint that’s supposed to be really good).
I’ll also hit the Merkato, said to be the largest of its kind in Africa, as well as a noted spice center.
I hope to have a complete report for all of you when I return, and who knows, maybe before …
Thanks for asking.
FOLLOWING UP FROM LAST WEEK: OFFERING A TASTE TO THE SOMM …:
“You could also, next time — assuming you surmount your guilt ; ) — offer the waitress or GM or sommelier a glass of whatever’s in your bottle.”
I’m curious about this. Are you saying there are restaurants out there that allow staff to drink during service? Seems like not the best policy to me? Or maybe we aren’t talking a glass, but rather a taste?
Just a taste.
And keep in mind, a sommelier is drinking on the job all the time. I mean, that’s the job, right?
OK, OK: sampling.
OK, OK: assessing.
I’ve seen chefs take a sip, mid-service, of something a diner brings in and invites a somm to pour (for both the somm and the chef).
It’s considered good form to offer the somm (or somm an chef) a taste of your brought-from-home wine. A way of saying thank you for allowing me to cheat you out of your most dependable source of income (if only for tonight, and if only for one bottle).
RESERVATIONS POLICIES, CONT.:
This talk about ‘arrogance’ and reservations policies from last week was pretty funny.
In my experience at Rose’s (which includes a 3 hour wait), the staff was as friendly and pleasant as could be. The downside of ‘creating buzz’ through a 3 hour wait (Twitter, etc.) is that guests are inclined to consider the 3 hour wait in their opinion of the food. For me, yes, it was excellent food, some of the best I’ve had. Was it ‘3 hours better’ than, say, Montmartre around the corner or any number of strong places where I could’ve had reservations that night? I’m still on the fence.
You also brought up last week the cultural capital question, that this is less about the food itself than the bragging rights of eating there. Hard to deny that, but that same dynamic is at work in those of us who scour the suburbs for the hidden gems in a Fairfax or Rockville strip mall. Both require the free time to pursue food and eating as a pursuit rather than a necessity.
I think it’s very, very different — although you make a good point about eating as recreation and all that that entails.
I can tell you just from personal experience that when I tell people I know about a great ethnic gem — I’m talking about people who don’t live for food, now — they’re often mildly interested at best. They’re far more interested in hearing about the hot new place, or the place with the chef they saw on TV. People love to feel plugged-in. They love to be able to talk about what everyone else is talking about. It’s a form of currency.
They can do that with, when it opened, Le Diplomate. They can’t do it with a place like Thai Taste by Kob, which I just posted a short review of up top.
Back to reservations for a second … I think you make another good point — about people factoring those long waits into their evaluations.
I’m interested to see how this no-reservations thing continues. And it will continue, because the kinds of restaurants that are coming are, generally, the kinds of restaurants that we’ve been seeing for the past couple of years.
I think it can’t help but to reshape the landscape — just as the shift eastward (restaurants in Shaw, Mt. Vernon Sq., Bloomingdale, the Navy Yard, etc.) already has. Older people are not inclined to stand out on a Friday or Saturday night for more than an hour and a half to eat dinner. People from the suburbs, the same. People with kids. People celebrating an occasion …
Where are these people turning when they want to go out to recognize an important night in their lives? The pool of candidates is shrinking, and many of the restaurants that are doing exciting work are not taking reservations.
WHERE TO GO WITH BABY FOR BRUNCH?:
With our first baby now our days of eating out at night seem to be over but we are able to try as many brunch places as possible.
What brunch spots do you suggest now where we may be able to get a good experiernce of what the restaurant is really like? Le Diplomate, DGS?
And also to add to your list: Estadio, Black Salt, Black Market Bistro, Volt, Vermilion, Mintwood Place, Trummer’s on Main, and 8407 Kitchen + Bar.
Good luck, and congratulations on your new arrival.
DATE NIGHT IN ALEXANDRIA OR ARLINGTON: WHERE SHOULD WE GO?:
My husband and I are having our first date night out in months while the little ones play with Grandma and Grandad.
We would like to eat somewhere in NoVA, preferably Alexandria or Arlington.
If we wanted to spend about $100 total, where would you send us?
In Arlington, I’d send you to either Liberty Tavern or Ray’s the Steaks. Depends what you’re more in the mood for — steaks, chops, crabcakes, or a meal with more range.
In Alexandria, my pick is The Majestic, a retro, high-end diner from the Restaurant Eve team. If you go, you have to get the Classic Caesar, made tableside and worth every penny and calorie.
Enjoy your rare night out. I hope these places come through for you.
I’ll be interested in hearing which direction you decided to turn …
FIELD REPORT: GRINGOS & MARIACHIS — NEW, IN BETHESDA …:
Have you tried the new Gringos & Mariachis in Bethesda yet?
I was during the soft opening and it was surprisingly good.
Margaritas were great- the original was my favorite- distinctively limey taste.
We enjoyed all the food we ate too, but we thought the duck nachos were a little greasy.
The chips and salsa were also a standout- thicker than many restaurant chips, they held up to the salsas and guacamole very well.
Haven’t been yet, no.
But thanks for the report from the field.
Sounds like they’re off to a pretty good start.
(Be nice if there were an online equivalent is of flicking the lights at the bar.)
Get those questions in now, everyone — I’m going to winding this down shortly …
FIOLA MARE: FIRST THOUGHTS?:
I am excited about trying Fabio’s new restaurant. I am a huge fan of his, but I do prefer Casa Luca now instead of Fiola – more casual and a little cheaper. His pasta dishes at Casa Luca are great. I saw the online menu for Fiola Mare and the prices seems reasonable for Washington Harbour. Can’t wait to try his take on lobster roll. Finally a good restaurant in the Harbour.
What are your thoughts – is he expanding to fast?
Too early to know that.
It’s only expanding too fast if the third restaurant isn’t any good. And/or the first two slip in quality.
To me, maybe the most interesting thing about Fiola Mare at this point is that it’s in Washington Harbour. The last restaurant of consequence in Washington Harbour was … I got nothing.
And now here comes Fabio Trabocchi. It’ll be fascinating to watch.
THE NEW WAVE OF ITALIAN SPOTS IN TOWN …:
We’ve gotten a ton of Italian restaurants in recently, or restaurants serving some Italian food. What’s your favorite of the bunch?
Do you anticipate any new openings (such as Fiola Mare) that could contend for the title there?
Best of that recent crop is Osteria Morini, at the Navy Yard.
The best Italian dish I’ve had recently, though, is the gravy and bread at Bar Pilar, which, as you know, isn’t an Italian restaurant. But the new chef, Jesse Miller, nails it. This could go on the menu of some of the best Italian restaurants on the East Coast and no one would blink.
Fiola Mare is a really interesting idea for a restaurant. I hope it works. It’d be a great thing for the city if it does.
I really do have to run, everyone.
Thanks for your patience, and thanks for your questions and reports. I appreciate it. I’ll miss you next week.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again in TWO weeks — Tuesday, March 11th …
[missing you, TEK … ]