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).
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.
FIELD REPORT: ROSE’S LUXURY, BARRACKS ROW:
You’ve got no shortage of compliments for Rose’s, but my wife and I had a celebratory dinner there a few weeks ago. We ordered quite a bit and were told “we might have some ribs to take home,” but we didn’t and considered dessert.
Ended up deciding to walk for coffee and gelato (it was still early and nice out), but our waitress brought us something anyway…some smoked mascarpone something…that was just wonderful and topped off a great meal all around. On the house.
And speaking of chatty waitresses, she was as friendly and chatty as they come but it was quite welcome and she knew the menu inside and out. I wish I had her name to drop it here.
My one Rose’s complaint after two trips isn’t the wait time, it’s that there are very, very few vegetables on the menu. Our last trip there was basically one salad: a charred romaine that was a (delicious) vehicle for the cotija cheese. Do you expect they’ll offer more in the coming months?
It’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t, actually, based on the current construction of the menu. But you never know.
There are, however, a lot of vegetarian dishes, and that’s a pretty great thing to see. Well, not just a lot of vegetarian dishes, but vegetarian dishes that are interesting and rewarding (and that are tempting even for non-vegetarians.)
Your recent experience at Rose’s doesn’t surprise me at all. And get that server’s name — I love singling out great people on here.
CHOPSTICKS OR FORKS AND KNIVES?:
Went to Thai Taste by Kob on your recommendation and loved it. You were spot on with the dishes you talked about. Also, the way you talked about the chef and her process gave us confidence to order some things we wouldn’t normally, like the noodle bowls, and they were great.
But a question: do you use chopsticks in a Thai restaurant or knife and fork. My friends and I had a friendly debate about this at the table.
Thanks, and I can’t get through Tuesday without these chats!!
I love hearing that!
And to answer your question: forks and knives — and spoons; can’t forget spoons — are the preferred utensil in a Thai restaurant.
That’s different from Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Burmese custom.
I’m glad to know you made it to Thai Taste by Kob, and even gladder to hear you had such a good meal.
FIELD REPORT: LE DIPLOMATE, ON 14TH ST.:
Our group of 9 went to celebrate several birthdays – including a milestone 50 year one.
We had our reservation at minimum a month in advance, and when I made the reservation I indicated that it was a birthday celebration and none of us had been to the restaurant before, and that there were two vegetarians in our group as well as one seafood allergy, was that a problem? The host indicated that they appreciated all the info and no problem on the allergy or menu options for the vegetarians.
I did not expect anything special or free, and this group goes out several times a year to celebrate birthdays and we’ve just learned from experience to share information in advance to enhance everyone’s experience since we are a large group.
Let me start off by saying the food was good – but it wasn’t great. I can get the same quality food at the same price point or better in several other places in the DC area. This restaurant is constantly being promoting as fashionable, one of the best new restaurants in town, terrific service, etc. Based on our lackluster experience last night, not one of us from our group of nine is inclined to go back or recommend it.
It all started with our reservation, which as I mentioned was made one month in advance. When they called the night before to confirm, they did indicate that despite a reservation, since we were a large group we might have to wait up to an hour. I was shocked and asked what was the point of the reservation? That if I was told that when I made the initial reservation, I could have informed my party and/or made alternative plans. Several people in the party have to deal with sitters. And potentially adding an hour waiting is costly and not the point or what we had planned. After complaining and indicating that I might have to change the reservation due to that and some time limitations for my group, they did call back, apologize and say that we’d be seating no problem at our reservation time. And true to their word, upon arrival we were seating at our reservation time – but it did leave me with a bad initial impression.
As mentioned the food was good – but not great. The service was terrible, and note that this was a Monday night – they were full, but not packed and no line waiting out the door. Our waiter had to be asked to bring us water, bread and a drink menu. Throughout the evening we had to flag down the waiter to bring us refills. Different servers served the food – which is normally fine, but they didn’t know who ordered what so they just called out the orders. Not the elegance we were led to believe existed there.
Once that was settled, there were several orders of mussels, which had their shell bowls. The waiter did come and take the shell bowls, but never returned with empty bowls, and the diners in our party were not finished with their meals. When he finally came back, and their mussels were cold he asked if they were done with their plates and someone said, not by choice but they had no where to put the shells so that they could finish their plates. Note that we did flag down a bus boy twice who indicated he would tell our waiter and/or bring shell bowls.
We weren’t in a complaining mood since we were all enjoying one another’s company and were pleasantly surprised that while the restaurant was loud, we could still engage in conversation.
Our group easily spends over $1000 on these outings – happily and we are all professional women, well attired and well mannered. But we just couldn’t believe the hype and the attitude we got.
I can’t say I have a question per say, but do wonder if restaurants begin to believe their own hype, do they go downhill? Do people flock to Le Dip because it is the hip new place and overlook food quality and service or did we really hit it on an off night?
For background, last month we went to Casa Luca and not only had a lovely evening, but several of us have been back and have recommended it to others.
You came expecting elegance? I’m actually surprised to hear that. I mean, it’s a bistro. Bistros are not elegant, even ones as stylish as this one is.
It sounds as though you listened to the buzz, rather than, oh, I don’t know, read my review. 😉 Because “good, not great” about sums up my view of the food. (I should mention that there are several things that are great, including the chicken liver mousse.)
Your disappointing experience may be caused by a number of things. A Monday night could be one of them. Certain restaurants are better when they’re not slammed, and certain restaurants are better when they are — the pacing is crisper, the servers are in sync, the kitchen is working with speed and precision because it has to keep up with demand. Take away that demand, and in some places there’s a slackening. Not a collapse, but a noticeable falling off in the level of detail in the cooking and the pace and crispness of the service.
That’s just a guess; I wasn’t there. But Mondays do tend to be slower at many restaurants, and a place like Le Dip, where the energy is always so high, is bound to have its ebbs now and again.
But as for whether people flock there because it’s a great-looking place to see and be seen — absolutely; the vast majority of patrons in that restaurant are not “foodies.”
SITTING ON THE FLOOR TO DINE? …:
I recently enjoyed a meal at Khyber Pass in NYC. The restaurant had a setup where you sat on the floor to eat similar Japanese tatami rooms.
Do you know of any restaurants that offer a similar dining experience in DC?
No, sorry, can’t think of any.
Off the topic, but in a way not, I notice when doing things with my kids — music classes, events at school, etc. — that there are parents who sort of relish getting down on the floor with the kids and sitting cross-legged and there are parents who don’t.
Which are you?
I know people without kids who also kind of love to get down on the floor and sit cross-legged.
It always makes me think of camp. And I never liked camp.
BECOMING A REGULAR AT A RESTAURANT:
Hi Todd –
I’m hoping you can throw this out to any waitstaff listening in today.
How long does it usually take for a sever to remember a customer? I’m not the kind of guy who introduces myself to waitstaff, even at places I frequent, but I wonder if visiting a place every month or so for several years is enough to register as a familiar face with staff (staff that has been largely the same the entire time I’ve been going, I might add).
Do waitstaff give better to service to customers they know/recognize? Or is this reserved for those on a first name basis? And if you do go to the same place often, is it worth introducing myself?
Looking forward to hearing opinions.
Really good question.
And a question I don’t think anyone has ever asked on here.
If you want the waitstaff to remember who you are the next time you come in, there’s a method that works nearly every time: tip very, very generously.
In other words, think of leaving around 25% or more. That’ll get their attention. Tip like that two or three times in succession, and I guarantee that every one on the staff will know who you are when you walk through the door.
Otherwise, and excuse me if this sounds crass, but you’re just a guy who comes in a lot.
To broaden the discussion just a little … There are some people who think that at places where they go often, they should expect little favors. And no doubt management looks to take care of its regulars when it can. But there are others of us who have a different view of things, which is that at a neighborhood place — a place you go five, six times a month or more — you should tip more generously than you do elsewhere. These are your people. And it doesn’t cost you, the diner, that much more to show them that you appreciate their taking care of you month in and month out.
LEAVING D.C. — WHERE SHOULD WE HIT BEFORE WE SPLIT TOWN?:
After 10 years, we’re leaving DC for Chicago. We’ve eaten well at Komi, Estadio, Inn at Little Washington, Corduroy, Central, Citronelle, Majestic, Eola, Jaleo’s, Little Serow, tons of Vietnamese and Korean restaurants in NOVA, Le Diplomate, Ben’s Chili Bowl, almost every Ray’s, Tabard Inn for brunch,… Which gems should we make sure to cross off the bucket list? Is very “DC”? Have great brunch or lunch menus? We want to have a few more memorable meals before we leave.
I’ll miss the dining scene here in DC, but am excited for the beef sandwiches, Polish pierogies, Mexican, a real Chinatown, and affordable mid-priced spots in Chicago.
Thanks for your advice and all your chats.
I don’t know about very D.C. — 1789 comes to mind, there, as well as Old Ebbitt Grill (both, incidentally, owned by the same restaurant group).
But you didn’t mention Rose’s Luxury (alas, no reservations taken) or Red Hen or Izakaya Seki, or DGS Delicatessen. Four of my current favorite places to dine, and four places that I think give energy to and define the scene at the moment.
Dan O’Brien’s sorta supper club at Seasonal Pantry is something you should look into; not a lot of places like that around the country.
Sushi Taro, for great sushi.
Ethiopian? This is the place to go in this country. I’d make sure to hit Abay, in Arlington, for tere sega and all manner of tibs. The cooking there is better than in many of the restaurants I ate at in my recent trip to Ethiopia.
Good luck, and please report back.
And thanks for being such a loyal reader all this time. You’re going to love eating in Chicago. It’s a great restaurant city, and at every level.
MAKING CURRIES AT HOME: WHY DON’T THEY EVER TASTE LIKE WHAT I GET IN RESTAURANTS?:
Following up on last week’s chat: we say “Close enough for government work” in my house – and my husband works for the government! We always said it growing up, too.
I had a cooking question – I love to cook and try to cook different ethnic foods. I feel like I am getting a good handle on Thai and Mexican. One I can never seem to grasp is Indian – I try to make curries and they never seem to taste like what I get in restaurants.
Buy a cookbook? 😉
Actually, I do recommend Suvir Saran’s Indian Home Cooking. It’s well done, and a good book for someone just starting out.
I don’t know what sorts of things you’re doing or not doing in the kitchen, but using whole spices and not ground is important to getting good, deep flavor. And toasting those spices, too — also really important. Toasting brings out the character of the spices. If you’ve only used jarred blends, buy a coffee grinder and grind your own — after toasting them. Makes a huge difference.
BECOMING A REGULAR, CONT. …:
I worked at the same restaurant for many years and we tended to get a lot of repeat business.
The staff knew anyone who came in more than once a month – mostly because the staff didn’t have a lot of turnover. If you want to be a regular, dining at a small family-run place is your best bet. The staff is more likely to notice you night after night, and corporate restaurants tend to burn through staff quickly (a story for another day).
Big tips will get you noticed for sure, but being courteous, friendly and understanding go a really long way too.
Thanks so much for chiming in on this, and for leavening my cynicism. 🙂
You make a good point about the kind of restaurant to patronize often. I’d just add that there are some big-time places — not a lot, but some, like Rose’s — that do a great job in this regard, too.
And being a good, curious-minded, and open diner is always a good thing, yes.
MOROCCAN IN D.C. OR NOVA?:
I’ve ordered Moroccan “style” dishes in restaurants before, but I’ve never been to a Moroccan restaurant. My fiance claims that this is a huge hole in my resume, do you have a favorite?
Any price point is fine, but I’d like to be within a 20-30 drive from Roslyn.
Thanks! You’re the best
It’s true. 😉
Go to Zeitoon, in Sterling, owned and operated by the wonderfully personable Amine Fettar.
The recipes are his mother’s, the prices are extremely reasonable, and you’ll feel well taken care of.
It might be housed in a strip mall, but this is the opposite of fast food. Start with the zaalook, an eggplant dip, or harira, a soulful cinnamon-spiced lentil soup, or both. Then move on to the cornish hen tagine, with its rich sauce flavored with ginger, preserved lemon and olives. The couscous is terrific, not to be missed.
For a finish: homemade baklava and mint tea.
I hope you make it out there, and I also hope you report back when you can.
I’ve been thinking about egg rolls.
It seems like when I was a kid, there a few placed we’d go to get really great egg rolls — I’m thinking about Rickshaw on Rockville Pike, where I remember the filling being a bright green, studded with shrimp; or Mr. Lee’s near Sandy Spring, where I seem to remember a porkier, somewhat peppery egg roll. (I’m sure pretty much everyone had some other favorite and a specific reason why, but those are the ones that stay with me.)
But I feel like most of the egg rolls I see nowadays are fairly generic and uninteresting, generally devoid of meat or seafood or other distinguishing characteristics.
So I guess I’ve got three questions:
1) What’s the best egg roll going right now, even if it’s the only good thing at an otherwise horrid carry-out joint?
2) Am I right about the change in egg rolls, or is this just typical remembrance of things that tasted awesome to a kid?
And, 3) What’s your favorite egg roll from your memories?
My favorite eggrolls were, and are, the ones my mom makes. Doesn’t count, I know, and yet …
She took Chinese cooking classes way back when, and her eggrolls are light and crisp and not at all greasy, and very, very addictive.
(She also makes a wonderful whole steamed black bass, with ginger and green onions.)
I haven’t had a good one at a restaurant in — I don’t know how many years.
I’ve gotta think that this is one of those cases where they were pretty mediocre as a kid, too — it’s just that you were a kid, and kids love things that are packaged tightly and fried.
If I have a comparable childhood love, it’s Tex-Mex. Most Tex-Mex, at least around here, is pretty awful (the cuisine itself is not awful, and is one of the great examples of how fusion, so often pooh-poohed, is really the way of cultures and cuisines), but I still get giddy whenever I see a baked burrito, or enchiladas drenched (I mean it — sunken) in sauce and cheese. Good? Not, perhaps, by the more exacting standards of the day. But loveable all the same.
WHERE TO TAKE MY BRO-IN-LAW AND HIS WIFE TO SHOW THEM THE CHANGING CITY?:
My brother in law and his wife are coming to town this weekend. He lived here years ago and I want to show him some parts of town that have really undergone renewal since he left.
Can you suggest some places that work for people who don’t eat meat but do eat fish and where we could still get a reservation. No limits on cuisine other than Ethiopian which we think is OK but would just as soon avoid.
I’d take him to Red Hen, in Bloomingdale, and Izakaya Seki, at 11th and V.
A generation ago, and even as recently as 7, 8 years ago, these neighborhoods were ignored by many, if they even knew they existed.
Reservations are going to be a problem; most of the places in areas you’re looking to show him don’t take them. But if you arrive early at either, 5, 5:30, even just before 6, you shouldn’t have to worry.
FOLLOWING-UP FROM LAST WEEK: FEIJOADA:
Your mention last week of feijoada got me wondering if there is a decent version in the DC/VA area?
I lived in Brazil for a couple years and my Saturdays in Sao Paulo were always consumed with a day long feijoada that, coupled with the Brazilian heat, would cause me to pass out by 7pm.
I’ve looked for something similar up here but just haven’t been able to find it.
I would love to see a good Brazilian restaurant in the area. Feijoada is a very wonderful thing, if done well.
The Grill from Ipanema, in Adams Morgan, does feijoada, but it’s been years since I was in. And my memory is that it was only decent. But worth a look, if you’re hankering?
And if you’re inspired enough to try it, please let me know.
FOLLOWING UP FROM LAST WEEK: FROM RUSTIC TO RIDICULOUS :
On paying double and triple, in my opinion, there are times where you get more than just food to satisfy your hunger and frankly, on such experiences I never think of how much I spent (even though it makes a dent in my credit card account).
Here is an example: recently I was at Fiola Mare where the wait was about 1,5 hours, but the staff told me which bar was less busy, the bartender told me about the menu options and found a wine I was interested in trying, and then the dinner was much better than expected – lobster ravioli is a truly incredible dish you forget the price of as soon as you take a bite, and the server recommended a pasta I probably wouldn’t order until I had a chat with him. I’m an adventurous eater and look for something unique and special, which didn’t come across on the menu, but turned out to be amazing once I took a bite.
The whole experience was enhanced even more when we asked our server to pair our dishes with the wines that he’d recommend – again, he picked wines I’d never think of in this case, and the whole pairing was an explosion of flavors, probably like watching an artist you get an incredible joy of watching perform (clearly a lot of the kudos here go to Fabio Trabbocchi’s palate and creativity).
All in all I left with a feeling of having had a marvelous experience without thinking about the price, and knowing that this place might be 3-4 times what I’d pay at a mom and pop Italian place (which I also frequent and love on many occasions) but sometimes you just want more than food, and I know I can trust Fiola Mare to deliver that now, and I am willing to pay for it (occasionally), in a way we pay more for a Paul Mc Cartney concert, or opera in which Placido Domingo is performing.
It’s all relative, but in the end it’s all about the experience, and unfortunately there are way too many places where the price is 2-3 times of average but nothing makes me think so.
My golden rule is simple, if after a meal my mind is stuck on how much I paid, it didn’t deliver.
But I think chef Trabocchi is a clear exception in this case. What about all those Italian restaurants that can’t come close to delivering exquisite, as Fiola Mare can, but merely pretty good? Pretty good cooking, pretty good service, pretty good wines. Cost for this pretty good dinner for two: $140.
Places like that are not the exception in this area; they’re the rule. Much more pretentious than an unassuming little trattoria, but much, much less capable than a Trabocchi-level extravaganza.
Sure, the latter is worth saving up for. And if my recent, sumptuous meal at Fiola Mare is any indication, you probably won’t regret what you spent. But it’s those places in between that we’re talking about, places that, as my friend puts it, are two and three times more expensive than the simple, dependable place he always goes to, but not two and three times more pleasurable.
SERVICE, CONT. … — DIPLOMATE AND BAR PILAR:
It was interesting reading the earlier submission about Le Diplomate.
My husband and I had an early (pre-theatre) dinner there on Sunday. It was the fourth time we’d been since the place opened, and the service and cooking seemed to be exactly what we’ve come to expect — which is to say, good enough to keep going back even at those prices. (to be fair, we chose LeDip after we couldn’t get a 5:30 reservation at Estadio).
On the other hand, also in my neighborhood, I had a 7pm reservation at Bar Pilar on Wednesday. When I showed up with my group of 4 on time, I was told that the second floor, where they seat reservations, was booked with a party until 7:30. They claimed they tried to call *twice* to tell me this, but of course my phone showed no signs of missed calls or voicemails. We chose not to stay…
That’s odd. Not like the operation I think I know.
I’d love to hear Bar Pilar’s side of the story.
Thanks for writing in.
And I think it helps, in the case of Le Diplomate, that you’re in the neighborhood; it’s essentially a neighborhood spot, for all its stylishness and buzz. Expectations for a place are very different when you can just walk a few blocks.
SOMETHING NEW NEAR STUDIO THEATER?:
A friend and I will be volunteering at Studio Theater on Friday evening. We’ve gone to many of the restaurants around there, but want to try for a new-ish place if we can squeeze it in.
We have to report at 645pm, so we need an early dinner not too far from 14th and P Sts. and we are open to any cuisine and pricier places.
Please advise. Thank you!
How about Doi Moi, for Thai and Vietnamese? About three blocks north from Studio.
If you go right when they open, at 5, you shouldn’t have to wait, and you can also have a nice and relaxed dinner.
Make sure to get the crab fried rice. Terrific.
Gotta run, everyone. Thanks so much for the questions and comments and musings. I appreciate all of it.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK …]