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
WHERE I’M EATING NOW …
I hesitate to include this, if only because I know Eastporters are going to be furious with me for outing their secret. The place is run by Pat Mahoney Sr. and his son, Pat Mahoney Jr. They’re watermen, among the last of a dying breed. Every morning they troll the waters around Eastport and Annapolis, bringing their haul back to sell to the public. You order at the counter inside, then take a seat at one of four tiki umbrella-topped tables along the gravel-topped parking lot; they’ll bring you the food. And what food. The thing to get is the softshells, provided they still have them when you show up. The day I was in, they did, and I feasted on two massive, meaty, delicately sweet softshells — the best preparation of the dish I’ve had this season. The softshells had been quartered, dredged in a mixture of what appeared to be flour and corn meal, and lightly fried. With cole slaw and fries, the tab came to — yes, I’m not joking — $15. I haven’t tried the hard shells; they’ve been sold out. But I can’t imagine they’d be anything less than great; I’m eager to come back and bring home a bushel. If you’re not a fan of softshells, there’s also good fried shrimp, bay scallops, rockfish, and clams.
The Rogue Gentlemen, Richmond
Yes, I know Richmond is two-plus hours away. I’m adding it this week because a) it’s summer and people are lighting out on long trips and b.) I had one of the best meals I’ve eaten all year there, and would gladly get back in my car and drive two-plus hours to return. I love the space, which is not much bigger than some living rooms — it has the air of a place hiding from those too conventional to understand. I love the cocktails, fashioned from obscure, high-quality spirits and mixed with laborious care. And I love the cooking, which is far more composed, beautiful and exacting than you would expect of a place like this. A plate of roasted beets with salmon roe, parsley and turnip creme fraiche — unimprovable, one of the best preparations of beets I’ve had in years — would not have been out of place at Jean-Georges. A roasted foie gras with crushed pistachios and pickled sour cherries was just as glorious, a sensuous essay in textures; it was easy to imagine it on the menu at CityZen, though not for $15. Prices are eye-poppingly cheap. The most stunning value on the menu is the rib eye. Basted with butter and thyme and drenched with a sauce of Overholt Rye and black peppercorn, it’s a thoughtfully reimagined twist on steak au poivre. It comes with two cuts of meat (including the prized culotte, or cap), a shank of roasted bone marrow and delicately carved baby carrots (the marrow and the carrots are a perfect combination themselves). All this for $21. Bravo to the wonderfully fruitful (and apparently seamless) partnership between owner John Maher and chef Aaron Hopkins.
Nainai’s Noodle and Dumpling Bar, Silver Spring
It’s a pain to park — options are limited along this stretch of East-West Highway between Georgia and Colesville, and you may be forced to dock your car in the garage around the corner for $5. I did, both times, and both times I walked in in something less than the spirit of having a good time. And both times the cooking picked me up. The dumplings are good, not great (get the Year of the Pig, stuffed with juicy ground pork), but even a good not great dumpling is a pretty wonderful thing. The steamed, stuffed buns vary in quality, and the meats inside are a touch dry. Focus on the noodle bowls, which feature hand-pulled noodles (notice the ends, which are uniformly not uniform — some are fat, some thin). I like the Pai Gow, topped with ground pork, chili oil, bean sprouts, mustard greens, toasted garlic and ground peanuts, and the Mahjong Noodles, tossed with sesame paste, peanut butter, cucumbers, carrots, bean sprouts and chili oil. To drink: a bottle of DC Brau or Port City Porter.
Cafe Rue, Beltsville
I’ve got a lot of affection for this one-man band. Cole Whaley, a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine, is not just the owner and chef — he’’s also waiter, runner, and busser of this likable little hole in the wall in a fading Beltsville strip mall. There’s no other menu in the area quite like this, a delightful hodgepodge of soul food, yuppie bistro small plates, and Frenchified sweets. His crispy Brussels sprout dish may be the best I’ve had in a year full of crispy Brussels sprouts dishes — the outer leaves separate slightly, and he gets a chip-like crunch on them. And I love the enhancements — a touch of coconut oil for richness, a drizzle of clover honey for sweetness. The miniature crab cakes are hard to resist, and disappear quickly. Chicken and waffles are the heart of the menu, and the Cotton Club-derived combo comes in four varieties, including one with red velvet waffles and one with Sriracha-glazed chicken that calls to mind the sweet-spicy crunch of General Tso’s. I like the “classic” — the boneless, white meat chicken has surprising juice, and the waffles are thick and fluffy. Come dessert, the Francophile chef indulges his love of patisserie with five kinds of macarons (the cream centers are a touch dry, but he nails the difficult outside) and a surprisingly successful attempt at that recent darling of the NY foodie world, the cronut. More to like: the dining room is dressed up with art from the owner’s own collection, and bossa nova on continuous loop makes any day feel like a lazy Sunday. (Note: odd hours. Closes at 8 during the week and on Friday, and at 3 on Saturday and Sunday.)
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).
30-MINUTE WAIT FOR A SANDWICH …:
Last week you mentioned a place where you waited 30 minutes for two sandwiches — was it Lunchbox?
My friend waited 30 minutes for a sandwich there a couple of weeks ago (and to add insult to injury, they got the order wrong).
I’ve experienced similar, but not quite as bad, waits. I’d love to hear your thoughts, if you’ve been there.
Thirty minutes for a sandwich — amazing. And getting the order wrong.
My wait was at the new Full On Craft Eats & Drinks, in Rockville. At least they got the order right.
The wait obviously colors my experience, but I will say that the sandwiches were pretty good sandwiches.
Though — and this is as bad as the wait — they weren’t what I would consider “craft” sandwiches. The bread wasn’t baked on the premises, or “sourced” from a first-rate supplier. If there was artisanship in the making of the meats, it was lost on me.
PLACE FOR A BOOK CLUB TO MEET?:
In search of a place in the District for my book club to meet. Obviously, should have good food, drink, or both. Also needs to be quiet(ish), and have options for dietary restrictions (vegetarian, gluten-free). And be close to a metro station. Any thoughts?
Corduroy? It’s one of the quieter dining rooms in the city. You’d have an easy time talking, I’d think.
The Oval Room?
Though, thinking about it some more, these spots might be more expensive than what you’re looking for. Also, more of a curated sort of experience than you’re looking for. You want the discussion to be front and center, right, and not the food and drink?
Or don’t you?
Maybe you don’t.
I’m in a book group, myself, and can’t imagine meeting in a restaurant. I think it’d be too distracting. But then again, I don’t like a book group to be about anything but the book. (And fiction and creative n/f only). Not talk of politics, or what someone heard that day on NPR, or house repair projects, or vacations, or what movies people have seen or want to see. I don’t even like hearing whether people liked the book or didn’t like it. Immaterial. They read it; they had an experience. How can we put our heads together and find more meaning in what we read? For two-and-a-half hours, let’s leave behind the quotidian world we’re all forced to live in and plunge down deep into the created world of the author and try to puzzle out his or her meanings.
But again, as I say, that’s me.
Is anyone else in a book club?
Do you meet at restaurants? Do you meet at people’s homes and someone cooks? What sorts of meals do you have on these nights?
BLUE DUCK TAVERN, CONT. …:
Did the last two weeks of pummeling of Blue Duck Tavern over service turn your head a little?
You’ve championed it for the cooking over the last year and now the place is going through major chef changes on top of the service outcries. Do you wonder or investigate what might be going on? Do you go back to check yourself?
I had planned on making a visit, given all the feedback I’d gotten from all of you over the past few weeks, but now I’m going to wait a while since Dan Singhofen, the chef, has left (news I shared via Twitter last week.)
A chef change means a restaurant is officially in transition. It makes sense to wait, even though the alleged problems of service would seem to be unrelated to anything that is happening or about to happen in the kitchen.
“Seem to be,” of course, is the operative phrase here. A restaurant is such a delicate organism. Everything feeds off of everything else. Problems can and do ripple.
Anyway: strange doings.
TASTE OF SAIGON, IN ROCKVILLE: SAD TO SEE IT CLOSE …:
Just read that Taste of Saigon is closing.
Our family has loved the black pepper shrimp and black pepper chicken for years. All of their dishes were superb and so carefully prepared. They seemed to thrive in their previous location when their hostesses wore their native clothing and we were able to eat in the outside garden.
We sincerely hope that the owner will consider relocating in the Rockville area as soon as possible.
Hopefully the Virginia location will remain until they can find another Rockville address.
Thanks for writing in …
It’s hard, isn’t it, when a place you’ve come to depend on like that closes. Surprisingly hard.
We all have places like this, and we’ve all had places like, this, too — places that supported us, in a sense, and then closed.
We went there when we were tired and didn’t feel like cooking. We went there after a bad day. We went there when we wanted to celebrate, but weren’t in the mood for something fancy or couldn’t justify the expense. We went to catch up with friends. We went because one or two or three servers became our friends, and we felt the absence when we didn’t see them. We went for that one dish that this place did that we couldn’t do without. We went because when we walked out, two hours later, the world looked better than it is.
I’d love to hear about the places that play this part in your lives — whether it’s a place that’s around now, or a place that closed up shop years ago.
WARNING TO MY FELLOW RESTAURANT OWNERS …:
This is to notify my fellow restaurant owners in College Park, Greenbelt area.
We have received few calls from people, saying they are `Pepco Billing Department`, telling the electric service will be disconnected in few hours due to the unpaid balance and demanding money over the phone. They provide a 800 phone number to make it more credible.
When I spoke with the local police they said they have been hearing a lot of this lately, especially from the restaurants in College Park.
FYI, Pepco does not operate that way. Make sure to check with Pepco, first, and never give any money to these scam artists.
Thanks for this, Ferhat.
I hope everyone who owns a restaurant in these cities sees your note.
And I’m sure restaurateurs outside of these cities will benefit from seeing this, too.
Incidentally, I’ve always been curious about the origin of the phrase “scam artist.” Isn’t it a cheapening of the term “artist”? I mean, it’s one of those phrases that we all use without even thinking about, so I’m not blaming you by any means. But doesn’t it cheapen one of the most exalted forms of being, while at the same time elevating the profession of one of the lowest of the low?
I’m probably still smarting from an article I read this weekend, in which a reporter, profiling a man whose company is expected to gross $20 million this year, wrote, without irony, that the man considers himself an artist more than a businessman. He actually wrote that. The sentence that followed talked about the man’s $2.3 million Tudor mansion. He actually wrote that, too.
BOOK GROUPS, CONT. …:
You’d hate my book group — well, except for the food. While there have been some departures and some new folks, we’ve been together for what I am reminded is 20 years as of this fall (it’s hard to remember that far back).
We’ve always joked that we have two rules — you don’t have to read the book to come to book group and we only read books available in paperback. The second rule was especially important 20 years ago when most of us had much less disposable income. And the first rule was established because we didn’t want folks not to come if they had a rough month at work or at home, and hadn’t found time to read the book.
We talk about books (often, not just the one we read) and we talk about everything else, too. We meet at someone’s house and have what amounts to a fairly high-functioning pot-luck dinner. Usually, the hostess (we are all women) announces via e-mail the main dish she is making about week before we meet. Everyone else e-mails with appetizers, side dishes, wine and dessert. We are fortunate to have a number of good cooks in the group.
It wouldn’t work for everyone, but it works for us . . . as evidenced by our upcoming 20th anniversary meeting!
That’s fantastic! You have my heartiest congratulations.
My group is in its 5th year; we started in September of 2009. I hope we have 20 years, and more.
You probably wouldn’t like my book group. ; ) But we have a great time. For me, it’s a chance to get away from food for a night, even though there’s food on the table. But it’s not food I have to think about. The book is center stage. It’s also a chance to have really smart, searching, intense conversation about something that matters with people who have what I am finding increasingly rare in the species these days: perspective, and a disdain for inanity.
Hope you had a great weekend. I have a question about restaurant happenings in DC.
I was at Blacksalt on Saturday night, and on my way down MacArthur Blvd., I passed Et Voila, which appeared to be having renovations done (work trucks, ladders). Do you know when they reopen? I hope soon !
Also, in the spot where Listrani’s was there is now a sign for a restaurant (still undergoing interior renovations) called Bistroquet. Any word on what this restaurant is or when it will open?
Word I got was that it’s supposed to open this month.
The restaurant is from the same owners of Bistro d’Oc, across from Ford’s Theater.
I don’t know how much it will resemble Bistro d’Oc, which is a pleasant spot with cooking that is sometimes decent and sometimes very, very decent and sometimes really good.
And as for Et Voila! — good news: they’ll be reopening tonight.
A FIRST DATE ON THE WATERFRONT IN OLD TOWN? …:
Looking for a good first date restaurant in Old Town.
I don’t get down there too often anymore. Something on the water or at least on that street would be perfect.
Would short-drivable be acceptable? 🙂
There’s nothing that I can recommend that’s right there on the water. I like Daniel O’Connell’s, but I don’t think it would classify as a first-date spot for most people. Smart pub grub. Good lamb sandwich and beers. Landini Bros. is old-school Italian, and can be fun; again, I don’t know that it would be your idea of a good first-date place.
If you’re looking for something more refined, but not too refined, how about The Majestic?Excellent upscaled comfort food, from chef Cathal Armstrong and Shannon Overmiller.
Followed by, if all goes well, a walk along the water.
ISO: A PALENA CAFE REPLACEMENT …:
We used to love to stop in for a fantastic Manhattan and burger and are feeling lost now that it’s gone.
Where else can we have a similar experience . . . excellent classic cocktail and simple meal in classy (or at least fun) surroundings and at an affordable price?
What comes to mind please, Todd?
Actually, you might be able to have a similar meal at Bread Feast.
Bread Feast is what owner Mark Furstenberg is calling the series of dinners that chef Frank Ruta is going to be cooking at Furstenberg’s Bread Furst, beginning this month.
More as I hear it.
In the meantime, the place I would turn is Proof, in Penn Quarter. And I know that would tickle owner Mark Kuller no end, given that he was one of the most passionate champions of Ruta and Palena.
I’m curious about one thing, and that’s your characterization of Palena Cafe as “affordable.” I’m not alone in thinking that it wasn’t; I know a number of people who generally really liked or loved the cooking but balked at making the place a mainstay. I thought prices were high; my last meal there was about $140 for two, and it was what I would call a light meal. Mostly delicious, but not all. And the space was not attractive and the chairs were not comfortable and the lighting was not great.
The old cafe — now that was affordable. More than that: a deal; a steal. Amazing cooking at an amazing price. For the time it lasted, it qualified, I think, as one of the great things about living in DC.
FILIPINO COOKING …:
A Filipino takeout has opened up in the back of a beer and wine store here in Olney. http://tinaskusinamd.com/
Do you know anything about this place in particular?
Failing that, any advice on how to approach trying Filipino food in general for the first time? Aside from a couple of meals at a college friend’s family home twenty years ago, I don’t know that I’ve ever had it before….
Your place is new to me; I don’t know anything about it. I’ll add it to the list.
I did just review, for the magazine, Bistro 7107 in Crystal City. It appears in the current issue.
I liked it a lot. It would be unfair to say that it’s the best Filipino restaurant in the area — though it absolutely is — because the competition is so poor.
If you go, or if you choose to check out your find first, think pork. If a Filipino place is any good, the pork dishes are likely to be amazing. That’s the case at 7107 (the name is not the usual trendy bistro laziness of calling a place by its street address; 7107 refers to the number of islands that make up the Phillipines.)
Take a look at what I wrote about the sisig: https://www.washingtonian.com/blogs/bestbites/best-thing-i-ate/best-thing-i-ate-filipino-sisig-chicago-style-hot-dogs.php
The crispy pata — a massive fried joint of meat that brings to mind the infamous scene in Tom Jones — is nearly as good.
One of the things that makes Filipino cooking so fascinating is that in a culinary world where chefs are constantly bidding to come up with exciting mashups, it comes — as I wrote in my review — pre-mashed. There are dishes where you can see the Spanish influence pretty clearly — the country colonized the islands in the 16th century — and others where the flavors of the Pacific Rim are unmistakable. And sometimes you get both all at once.
One of the best examples of this blending is a dessert: halo halo. It eats like a bingsoo. A heap of shaved ice topped with ice cream, pieces of flan, jackfruit, red beans, and even garbanzo beans (these are cooked in brown sugar, for sweetness).
I hope you give the place in Olney a shot and report back. And I hope you book a table, too, at Bistro 7107 — my meals were memorable, fun and inexpensive.
FOOD WINE & CO. AND CHEF MICHAEL HARR …:
So Food Wine and Co. sent Michael Harr packing.
The explanation ownership gave included a quote about wanting a more corporate minded chef. Harr, who actually brought some creativity and even a little risk to Bethesda’s dining scene, will be replaced by someone from Aramark.
No question to ask really, I just find this to be rather depressing.
I mean, Aramark.
It boggles the mind.
All the thousands of restaurants in the area, and they picked someone from Aramark.
My understanding is that the restaurant — sorry, the company — is looking to expand and “grow” the business.
I’ll be interested in hearing where chef Harr lands. He’s a talent. For me, that talent came through most vividly at his previous gig, running the kitchen at Butterfield 9.
Toward the end of his time there — investors shut the place down, if I’m remembering correctly — he was sending out a lot of imaginative, smart, and delicious plates of food.
I just looked up a piece I wrote in 2008 announcing the closing:
“An attraction for theatergoers and expense-account diners, [the restaurant] had of late become a dining destination. Harr had emerged as one of the city’s top chefs, sending out sophisticated, imaginative plates that, for all their technical daring, were rarely self-aggrandizing. Nearly 80 percent of his raw materials came from nearby farms, but you didn’t read about that on his sparely descriptive menus; shopping counts, he seemed to say, but cooking counts more.
“Some dishes were dazzling. A recent main course called ‘chocolate steak,’ a seared loin of elk with a painterly swipe of dark-chocolate sauce, was like eating a glass of great Bordeaux; the flavors were complex, resonant, and slightly mysterious. But Harr could also bring a table of adults to moaning with simpler preparations—a marvelous bowl of green-chili grits, for instance, or a fresh-cased rabbit sausage.”
Someone would be wise to snatch him up and give him the latitude to cook what he wants.
RESTAURANTS THAT “SUPPORT” US, CONT. …:
Re: Places that support us
Mr. Lee’s Kitchen, the Chinese takeout closest to the house I lived in until I was 8. Our go-to carry-out, and the place we would walk to when it snowed (as in the blizzard of 1983). There was someone — a daughter? Grand-daughter? — about my age at the time, and we would chase each other around the counter. They taught me how to use chopsticks, first with the rubber-banding trick and then how to use them without. Their egg rolls are the ones I think about when I imagine my platonic ideal of a takeout egg roll, and their white and red takeout cartons are the ones I remember from happy childhood family dinners.
The restaurant is still there — it’s a sit-down establishment now, not just the takeout counter it was back then — and the food is perfectly solid, but … well, nothing is ever as great as it was when you were seven, I guess.
Too, too true!
You can’t go home again … even when you go home.
And I’ll bet that every one of us reading along has our own Mr. Lee’s Kitchen. It might even be the actual Mr. Lee’s Kitchen.
Thanks for sharing your memories …
PALENA CAFE, CONT. …:
Todd, thanks for the suggestions.
And yes, I was referring to the old Palena cafe . . . burger and fry plate . . . ah, the memories!!
Many, many memories for me, too.
And no doubt for all of you, too.
For a too-brief while there in the early aughts, well before the boom in ambitious, mid-level restaurants, Palena Cafe was the absolute best meal you could have in the city for the price.
BOOK GROUPS, CONT. …:
The book club I have been a part of for about four years has met all over the city, both in our homes and out at restaurants.
It’s always an excuse to try someplace new and give someone the night off from cooking. 🙂
Some of our best experiences:
Mockingbird Hill (big table in the back, Sunday night, perfect)
Cafe 8 (Barrack’s Row, nice and quiet)
What kind of stuff do you read?
FRENCH DIPS …:
Your post about Full On Craft reminded me to ask- I see a french dip on their menu. Have you tried it by any chance?
I have been in love with these since my parents used to order me one at Fritzbees (remember that place??) It’s increasingly hard to find a good one.
Woodmont Grill used to have a good one till they changed it and now its awful.
If not Full On, anywhere else you’ve had a good one? Thanks!
I didn’t try it, no.
I love a good French dip. So warm and satisfying and rich.
It’s not a sandwich I see much of, unfortunately, so I can’t give you any leads. I’m sorry. I wish.
Fritzbee’s?? Doesn’t ring a bell at all. When was it around? And where?
Let me know for next time.
Meantime, thanks everyone for taking part. And all of you who didn’t send in a question or comment or rant or musing — thank you for just reading along every week. I appreciate it.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …[missing you, TEK … ]