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.
THE ORIGINAL LEDO vs. ALL THE OTHER LEDO’S …:
Last week you mentioned “the original” Ledo’s. What is different at the original Ledo’s?
I think the pizzas are better. Just all-around better.
The Marcos family franchised the place in the ’80s and told me, a number of years ago, that it regretted the decision, because the quality in the satellites was not as good and it ended up cheapening the name.
The original original, in Adelphi, is no more. Ledo Restaurant moved to College Park several years ago. The Adelphi restaurant opened in 1955. Right up to closing it still had its characteristic wood paneling in the dining room, just like you’d see in some old basements. There were yellowing pennants in the bar and autographed black-and-white pictures from Maryland basketball gods. The waitresses were not the modern type: they didn’t tell you their name up front; they didn’t ingratiate themselves; the best were kind of bullish and efficient, with an almost-weariness that was actually kind of charming.
All of this created a mood, a texture, and the place was, I think, better for it.
It’s still a good spot for pizza, and those pizzas are some of the most interesting you’re going to find in this area (a biscuit-like crust, smoked provolone instead of mozz, a rectangle and not a circle, etc.) But — and I’m not the first person to say this, nor the last, I’m sure — it’s not like it was.
Good morning, everyone. A cool, beautiful Spring day. Seize it.
Before we get started, I just want to wish a hearty congratulations to Vikram Sunderam, of Rasika. Last night Sunderam took home the James Beard Award for best chef in the mid-Atlantic region.
A NEW TREND IN TASTING MENUS …:
My husband and I dined at Brabo on Saturday night for our anniversary, and had one of the best meals we’ve had outside of NYC or New Orleans.
They’ve just rolled out a new tasting menu, down to five courses rather than seven, and each one was executed perfectly. I have never done a tasting menu before because I’m always daunted by so many dishes, but five was perfect in offering variety and showcasing the chef’s talents.
Have more restaurants started paring their chef’s tasting menus down to fewer courses? Just wondering if this is a trend?
I’ve seen chefs doing them with five, but hard to say if that’s a trend. I think the trend, if any, is away from tasting menus altogether.
Good to hear about Brabo — what did you eat? And what about the meal made it stand out from other meals you’ve had in the area?
I’m curious to know — and want to throw this out to everyone reading along today … forgetting for the moment about price, do you like tasting menus? And why or why not?
Before I became a critic, I liked them a lot; one of the things I enjoyed was trying to figure out what the chef was trying to “say” with his or her arrangement and arc of courses. (I say his or her, but it was almost never a her; it almost never is with tasting menus — something about the form is swaggering and male and show-offy). Some didn’t appear to be saying much; others, a great deal. These days, when I’m dining outside DC and on my own dime, I almost never order a tasting menu — though I often read it carefully to understand what to order a la carte. I don’t know what the explanation is. I freely admit to being a control freak. But I think it’s also that when I’m not working, I don’t want to be doing the very thing that I do when, well, I’m working work — that is, turning over every detail of the experience and trying to figure out what it means, and what all those many individual details add up to, etc.
But what about you?
SOFT SHELLS DONE RIGHT …:
I absolutely love soft shell crabs and it has been a long winter! Are there any places that you recommend where they are serving them?
A note to restaurant owners and chefs: STOP COATING SOFT SHELLS IN HEAVY BATTER! I like the taste of the soft shell crab, not the Kentucky Fried batter!
Couldn’t agree more.
And for those of you who are new to the area, or relatively new — in my estimation, this is the dish that, more than any other, defines the region’s foodscape. Though, sadly, more and more of the softshells you’re seeing in restaurants (not at the highest end, perhaps) are coming from SE Asia and elsewhere and not the Bay.
I love ‘em.
This time of the year, and through the last, cool days of summer, there’s nothing I’d rather eat.
Give me a good soft shell (fried, sauteed, tempura’ed), and I won’t even think about a lobster or a crabcake or clam strips or fried oysters.
Nothing like ‘em.
Sweet, meaty, mustardy, and, if they’re fresh and treated well, a taste of the water.
Here’s where I’d start — and I can all but guarantee you that these are places that are going to handle the soft shells with the delicacy demanded: Black Salt, Johnny’s Half Shell, Hank’s, Pearl Dive, DC Coast, and PassionFish in Reston.
FIELD REPORT: VAPIANO’S ON M ST. NW:
Hi Todd –
For what it’s worth, I just have to give a quick shout out to the Vapiano on M St. I went last weekend with a group of friends, and everyone thoroughly enjoyed the pasta selections. The ingredients tasted of high quality and the pasta was cooked al dente – something even fancy places can struggle with.
I know it’s not gourmet cooking, but it’s probably the best bowl of ~$10 pasta I’ve had in a long while.
Good to hear.
I love that in the same chat we can have a glorious testimonial to a tasting menu and a celebration of a place like Vapiano.
Which, as I wrote in my review some years ago, is a German version of an Italian restaurant that steals from the Chinese (the pastas are cooked in giant woks) and dresses its cooks like old Southern domestics.
You’re right: even the big-time places can struggle with getting pasta right.
Reminds me of a story. Some years back, a diner complained about a pasta dish at an Italian restaurant. The waiter explained that what he was experiencing was “al dente” pasta — it was not cooked until soft. The diner said: yes, I know, and I have been to Italy. He showed the waiter the pasta, and said: al dente or no, it should not be white in the center. The waiter, unapologetic and unsmiling, took the dish away and returned a few minutes later. Here, he said. The dish was piping hot. The pasta was no longer white in the middle. It was not al dente, though. It was soft. Soft and soggy. It had been microwaved.
The restaurant? Here, in this area. No longer in existence — to the relief of a great many, including me. I thought it was one of the most smug, arrogant, unwelcoming restaurants I’ve ever set foot in. And, oh, I have more stories. Many, many more.
TASTING MENUS, CONT. …:
My main issue with tasting menus is an uneven experience.
Not enough of what I really enjoyed interspersed with some courses that do not interest me.
I had such an experience at Beast in Portland, OR. It was a memorable meal, but some courses stuck in the memory more than others.
Bluestem is a favorite place for me to go when visiting Kansas City. Their tasting menu does it right. 3, 5 or 7 courses which have 1, 2 or 4 from starters, 1 or 2 from mains, and 1 dessert (which includes a cheese option). The portions are adjusted so that you’re having about the same amount of food, so you’re paying a bit more for variety.
That’s a good way to do it.
A really good tasting menu isn’t uneven. But that’s the issue, isn’t it — that there are tasting menus at places that shouldn’t be doing tasting menus.
If I’m eating in the Top Tier — say, at a Thomas Keller restaurant — then that’s one thing. (Well, at Per Se and French Laundry it’s the only thing: there’s no other ordering option available.) But how many restaurants are in that Tier? Do I want to eat a tasting menu at a Tier Three place? That’s where the great growth has occurred, in Tier Three and Tier Four. The vast majority of restaurants in these tiers are simply not good enough to do a tasting menu, and that’s where you get unevenness and
incoherent (or just not very interesting) statements.
FOLLOWING-UP FROM LAST WEEK: MINIBAR …:
Re: Minibar, Is it worth it?
Minibar is usually a once in a lifetime destination dining experience. And shelling out that kind of cash is a gamble- albeit an educated one. But when it goes wrong, it can be soul sucking.
This is going to sound like a 1% problem, because it is, but an example- we ate a Mugaritz several years ago.
We went in with very high hopes for a perception changing meal. And it wasn’t. A lot of it wasn’t even that good. One course was fossilized salsify with powdered caviar that will go down as the worst thing I have ever eaten. Another course was flower petals in a bowl of consomme. Did the schlep and expense add to the frustration? Obviously. Would we have been more tolerant of an equally hyped yet disappointing meal closer to home? For sure.
But we learned a really important lesson in the process. Speak up. If you don’t like what you are getting, say something. It is intimidating to do so when you are just the amateur eater and experts declare perfection.
Once we spoke up, other items came out of the kitchen- many of the classics they are famous for- and our meal improved dramatically.
That’s a great point, and it cannot be made enough.
Speak up. Assert yourself. When a server comes round to ask you, “How is everything?” — don’t hold back. Give details. Give them clearly and without rancor and don’t make it personal.
The problem is, most people are reluctant to engage like this at the table. They’re afraid of conflict. They don’t want to become part of the story.
But the fact is, sometimes that’s exactly what’s called for. You have to interrupt the show and say: No, I’m sorry. This isn’t working.
Who speaks up like this?
Someone who is well-traveled and has eaten in many, many restaurants. Someone with a confident and forceful personality.
The thing is, assuming the restaurant is gracious and understands, and a new and better dish arrives, the person who stopped the show has to not just thank the server, but to heap praise upon the server and the operation, and — and this is important — tip above the usual.
I’ve seen my share of assertive people in restaurants. Assertive people is not the phrase I really want to use; the phrase I really want to use would not be appropriate. But rarely do I see assertive people who know when to ease off the gas, and show the world kindness and courteousness.
TASTING MENUS, CONT. …:
When you say you study a tasting menu closely to decide what to order a la carte, what exactly do you mean? Do you use the progression of the courses to determine your own pacing and portioning or are there subtle hints that suggest what the chef sees as the best dishes?
I enjoy tasting menus for special occasions (not that I could afford them regularly anyways). Like you said, it can be exciting to put yourself in the hands of the chef and experience their vision for the meal, but I need to be in the mood for an over the top celebration.
Thanks for the follow-up question — you were right to prod me to explain myself.
What I mean is that I read it to see what dishes the chef wants to highlight. And try to understand why. What is the progression? Is it possible to glean anything from just reading? (It’s not, with most; you have to taste. But some give a hint.) What can I learn, from reading this, that I can then apply to a la carte menu?
FIELD REPORT: DGS DELICATESSEN, IN DUPONT CIRCLE:
I’ve got to give props to DGS for not just maintaining their quality but for continuing with the reimagining of what can be done with classic combinations of ingredients.
On Saturday evening I tried their new-ish Breakfast Nachos and was blown away. Freshly fried, waffle-cut potato chips topped with slices of their smoked salmon, avocado sauce, horseradish sauce, and capers. It made for a delicious (and surprisingly cheap at $9) meal in which the variety of textures, temperatures, and flavors made every bite a treat. A far cry from the potato blinis with lox I assume inspired it, but something I’m already anxious to go try again.
A mouth-watering report. Thanks for writing in.
And it sounds like you nailed the dish’s source and inspiration. I’m eager, after devouring this, to see for myself.
DGS isn’t just a great deli — a national-class deli, at that. It’s one of the best restaurants in the city right now. Also one of the very best values. It should be mobbed day and night.
TASTING MENUS, CONT. …:
Tasting menus have always been tough for me.
My conflict is that it either is too much food or too little. There is never the mama bear porridge.
On the up side, tasting menus usually have a lot of unique ingredients that aren’t on the menu otherwise. It usually is a way to not get tired of a particular dish.
On the downside, you are stuck with a style you may decide early on that you don’t like.
I also have struggled lately with tasting menus paired with beer (SAVOR week). Even with a few ounces of each beer, you’re drunk and full halfway through and forget to enjoy the food.
Do you think tasting menus typically add a premium beyond the expected price of the sum of the parts?
I’m not sure I understand the question.
But I think you nicely captured the joys and challenges of the tasting menu for a lot of diners.
I love the line about the mama bear porridge. Terrific.
VAPIANO, CONT. …:
That reference to a great $10 bowl of pasta makes me miss the late Il Radicchio in the space that became Komi.
All you can eat pasta from Roberto Donna, with a selection of a la carte sauces to order on the side. My group of friends would gather there, order a selection of sauces, and share amongst us. Wonderful memories.
Of course, I’d rather eat at Komi. But over the years I ate at Il Radicchio a lot more times than I’ve gotten into Komi!
I hear you.
It’s wonderful to have a dependable source for great everyday (and everyday priced) cooking.
The restaurant I mentioned above — that was supposed to have offered this exact thing. Everyday dishes at everyday prices, and from a name chef to boot. But what a disaster. You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people, Cornel West said. Well, you can’t feed the people if you don’t respect the people.
Gotta run, all. Running late for lunch.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]