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 and soy sauce; 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 many of 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 fabulous. 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; 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.
GOOD, MODERATELY PRICED RESTAURANTS IN D.C.?:
To jump on the moderately priced request, is there any where that is not small plates that fits that criteria in NW DC? Without needing a car to get around (I’m familiar with your position on getting out of town for affordable good food, but no car or drivers license over here)?
My siblings and I want to take my mom out for her birthday, and she does not abide by pasta dishes in the $20 range or plates of food with 3 bites on them (I too am grumpy that that is the norm but just suck it up).
It doesn’t have to be the talk of the town, but are there any American cuisine restaurants that have decent food that fit the criteria?
I think to suggest creative ordering at tapas restaurants or only ordering the cheapest dishes at other places really goes against the spirit of the question. If there really is no such place in DC worthy of particular recommendation, then perhaps it would better to just say that up front.
I don’t think a tapas or small plates restaurant violates the spirit of the question. You can eat moderately at these places, and no, you don’t have to order creatively. And many restaurants are small plates restaurants these days, regardless of their cuisine. It’s either the way people like to eat, or the way that restaurateurs want to feed us.
But some more names, non-small plates spots, to consider:
Ardeo + Bardeo
Birch and Barley
All are taken from this year’s 100 Best List. And all have the designation of being “moderately priced.” They might not be your idea of moderate, but set them against the scale of everything else in the city and you’ll see what moderately priced in this city in this age is.
Generally, American restaurants in this city are expensive. Or very expensive. I have long wondered why there isn’t an American restaurant, in the city limits or even in the close-in suburbs, that does what a restaurant like La Limeña in Rockville does. To wit: a whole fried trout, mound of oiled rice, and a side of black beans for about $13.
The trout is not wild; it doesn’t come from a named source. The rice and beans are not fancified or embellished with creative fillips. They’re good, and they also go nicely with the trout. A solid plate of tastily-prepared food, and it costs slightly more than a movie ticket.
At an American restaurant in the city, that trout would be wild or sourced from a name, most likely, and it would be more expensive. The rice and beans would be tricked out in some way. The plate would sell for $24.
And the thing is, that plate doesn’t have to sell for $24. People would be very, very happy to eat a $13 plate of simply and carefully prepared trout with rice and beans.
Clyde’s comes closest, but who else?
WHEN A CHEF LEAVES AND YOU’RE PLANNING ON DINING THERE … :
Agua 301 already replaced its executive chef? I was going to dine there this week.
Should I wait until the new chef gets his feet wet with their menu?
Generally, I would say yes. Wait, and give the chef a chance to settle in.
Places tend to be more under control when the staff in the back and front have had time to get used to the new chef.
It’s interesting to hear that Antonio Burrell, the founding chef, has left. I’ve kept a tally of the restaurants he’s cooked at since I started as a critic, and it looks something like:
El Centro D.F.
And I think I’m leaving a couple out.
That’s in 10 years.
Even Larry Brown, the vagabond genius of the NBA, never got around that much.
THAT PIECE IN VICE LAST WEEK …:
In Josh Ozersky’s piece last week in Vice about why chefs hate food writers, Ozersky said that “The three remaining expense-account critics in the country have the power to inflict more damage, but they at least pay their own way. 95% of the other writers—soon to be 100%—get comped.”
That assertion seems awfully over the top to me – can you comment at all? I wouldn’t think that such a high number of food critics receive free meals (which necessarily requires that they identify themselves).
It’s a hyperbolic piece, to be sure, though I want to say that I generally like Josh’s pieces. He’s funny and observant.
This is a rough guess — based, in part, on conversations I’ve had with other critics — but I would say there are about two or three dozen critics in the country who have the kind of expense accounts that allow them to eat as widely as they need to do the job. I’m fortunate to count myself among them.
Note, here, that he begins by talking about critics and ends by talking about writers: “The three remaining expense-account critics in the country have the power to inflict more damage, but they at least pay their own way. 95% of the other writers—soon to be 100%—get comped.”
The critic-writer distinction might not sound like much of anything to someone on the outside, but it’s an important one. A lot of food writing that is done, is done by writers (and “writers”), not critics.
And a food writer or “writer” is not, generally, under the same obligations as a critic. Ozersky, for instance, is a writer, not a critic, and likes to pal around with chefs and, so he says, pick up stuff in conversation with them that he would not get otherwise, just by formally interviewing them. I would guess he eats a good bit of free food.
By the way, the idea of chefs hating food writers is pretty funny. Why would they not? Dog Bites Man. The Man Bites Dog, here, would be much more interesting to look into, I think.
FIELD REPORT: DOI MOI, ON 14TH ST. …:
So this weekend I finally made it to Doi Moi and I have to say it was a big disappointment.
My friend and I sat at the bar and started with two cocktails. I don’t mind paying $12 for a cocktail, but it should at least come in a regular glass. The cocktail I ordered, a daiquiri, came in a tiny cordial glass and had very little rum actually in it.
We next ordered two appetizers and the lemongrass beef and vermicelli to split. The mushroom dumplings consisted of three tiny dumplings and the spring rolls were three pencil shaped rolls that barely took up an inch on the plate.The food was passable, but nothing to write home about.
I guess we should have gone for the dishes labeled spicy because the three we ate could have passed for baby food they were so bland.
All in all, our bill came to $65 before tip. A lot of money for not much satisfaction. Thank goodness for the Ben’s chili fries we ate an hour later that actually filled us up!
Have you had similar experiences here? Would you consider Doi Moi to be “worth it”?
I’ve been critical of it, here, on the chat, and my review, which went online recently, was critical, too.
There are some dishes that are terrific, that you didn’t get — like the fantastic crab fried rice. I could eat that every day of the week, it’s that good. There are others, here, I like quite a bit, too.
But in general, it’s not hitting, as a place, the way Proof and Estadio, by the same team, are. It’s interesting that you mentioned the food as being bland and have been thinking you should have ordered something marked spicy. Spicy, here, is fiery, no doubt about it. But what I’ve sometimes missed in the food is the other dimensions beyond spice that give the food of SE Asia its character.
As I said in my review, I have little doubt that the place will round into form and become, fully, what it was meant to. The question is how long.
GOOD, MODERATELY PRICED AMERICAN RESTAURANTS IN D.C., CONT. …:
re: “It doesn’t have to be the talk of the town, but are there any American cuisine restaurants that have decent food that fit the criteria?”
Here are three that meet the criteria (emphasis on decent, not great) food: Matchbox, Zest American Bistro, and Liberty Tree
They meet the criteria of being relatively inexpensive for this area.
Recommending places like this is always fraught for me, because the expectation is that I’m not just vouching for it but also giving my guarantee.
Even with a great restaurant, it’s impossible for me to guarantee a great night out. There are too many variables. A restaurant is not a fixed thing. And people know this, somewhere in the dusky recesses of their minds, but they forget it the moment they walk in the door prepared to drop $200 on dinner.
If I urge a reader to go to one of these three places, he or she will think they are better than they are, and the expectations will be raised beyond what a place like that can reasonably deliver.
That’s one reason I hesitate getting behind places like this.
Also, and as I have said on here many times, I don’t think they’re good values. Relatively inexpensive for the city, yes, but I think you can do much better hitting a strip mall in a close-in suburb and eating, say, the much more exciting cooking of Bangkok Golden or La Caraqueña.
OFFAL: WHY DOES IT COST SO MUCH?:
Why does offal cost so much (on menus and at markets)?
Didn’t that stuff used to get thrown out until the recent offal craze?
It seems like I could get the choice cut or the offal cut for nearly the same price.
Seems wrong? Is wrong.
It’s crazy, in all seriousness. These cuts that, as you rightly point out, were tossed out in the trash a generation ago, are now fetching big money at markets and in restaurants.
It happened a generation ago with chicken wings. The American mainstream, as strange as it sounds now, didn’t really eat them. They were discarded, or used for stocks. Chicken wings were the foodstuff of immigrants and minorities and the poor, who appreciated how cheap they were (and also how flavorful).
Then came Buffalo wings. And then a generation of chefs experimenting with ways to upgrade, tweak and reinvent Buffalo wings.
And now you can’t find a package of 10 for a dollar anymore in the store.
The thing about offal is that a good bit of its appeal, in a restaurant setting, is that it’s cheap. Or used to be. You could eat something with big flavor (the sauces and condiments will be big, too, to body up to the kidney or heart or whathaveyou) for not a lot of money.
Take that money savings away, and I think offal loses something.
I also wonder what will be the next frontier, now that every nook and cranny of an animal’s body has seemingly been conquered and served up on the plate.
GOOD, MODERATELY PRICED AMERICAN RESTAURANTS IN D.C.?:
How Founding Farmers?
Rarely over $20 an entree and enjoy their fried chicken.
I like it better for breakfast than for dinner, but yeah, I’d put that on our list.
Fun spot, too.
FOLLOWING UP FROM LAST WEEK: SAN DIEGO DINING:
Thank you for the follow up on San Diego!
Esp looking forward to the Carnitas Shack. Yum!
Have a great time, and soak up the sun.
And I’m glad to know that the community of readers, here, took such good care of you. Thanks to everyone who came through …
GOOD, MODERATELY PRICED AMERICAN RESTAURANTS IN D.C., CONT. …:
Re: Moderately Priced American …
To varying degrees of success, Blue 44 in Upper Upper NW tries to be the reasonably priced neighborhood joint. Entrees range in the $15-$20 range.
Jake’s American Grille across from Politics and Prose also tries to be that place, but with little success.
Although, to be fair, I have had some decent weekend brunches at Jake’s while drinking a beer and watching the English Premiere League at the bar. Their homemade biscuits can been excellent.
I give Blue an eh and Jake’s a double eh eh.
They’re there. I wouldn’t seek them out, and if I were within ten minutes of either, I would consider my options for fifteen and twenty minutes away.
I can’t quote you a specific number on my bill at Blue the last time I was in, but I want to say for two it was around $70 after tax and tip. I don’t consider that “reasonably priced” for the experience.
JAMES BEARD NOMINATION — WOO-HOO!:
I just wanted to wish you congratulations on the nomination!! That’s awesome. And very well-deserved. Keep up the good work!
I just got word about half an hour ago. It’s not as if I go into a sealed room, but I do tend to go to a quiet place and block out all distractions for the stretch of time I do this chat. But my phone went a-pinging …
We’re up for Food Coverage in a General Interest Publication, for the second year in row. The category also includes The Wall Street Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle, two publications that do a tremendous job with their food and drink sections. It’s a great honor.
Let me just take a quick second, here, to congratulate my co-nominee Ann Limpert, and give a big thank-you to Anna Spiegel, Jessica Voelker, Michael Goesele, Diane Rice, and Garrett Graff, for all their hard work and energy and enthusiasm.
PETWORTH EATS AND BANGKOK GOLDEN:
I’ve lived in Petworth for a few years and am enjoying some of the change that has happened recently. My favorite new bar is the Petworth citizen. On my last visit I tried some delicious home made beef brisket, it was smokey, tender and fatty.
I was wondering what your take is on this place and if you have any news on the restaurant by the same group that is said to open across the street from the Petworth Citizen?
Finally, I recently tried Bangkok Golden and was blown away by the crispy rice salad and the grilled pork shoulder. I just wish they moved closer to Petworth!
Keep doing what you do in our town! I feel incredibly excited to be in a city that is rapidly changing but am also quite concerned that it will all become a soulless/grit-less 14th and U condo wonderland, filled with overpriced mediocre food and boring people… just saying…
I hear you.
And I’ll do what I can to keep things interesting. Promise.
I don’t have anything so definitive as a “take” on Petworth Citizen, but maybe one day soon. And no, no news on their forthcoming venture. If I hear anything, I’ll be sure to let you know.
So glad to hear you got to Bangkok Golden and had the full-on BG experience. Pretty great, huh?
Oops — the time! … I’ve gotta run to lunch.
Thanks, everyone, for taking part today.
Be well, eat well and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]