Food

What’s Missing From the Washington Post’s Fall Dining Guide? A Lot.

There are loads of great meals to be had in the ’burbs—not that you'd know it from this too-narrow snapshot of the scene.
Egg noodles topped with barbecue pork at Thai Taste by Kob, top ten on Todd Kliman's list. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

In the wake of the release of Tom Sietsema’s annual fall dining guide, there’s been the usual chatter in the food world about who made the cut (the Partisan? Boss Shepherd’s?) and who didn’t (no CityZen?), and why (yesterday the critic explained the disappearance of the latter from his list, singling out the impending departure of chef Eric Ziebold).

The moaning from Bethesda magazine was as predictable as it was self-aggrandizing, with a blog post pointing out that the critic had yet again “snubbed Bethesda.” Sietsema, the deck informed readers, “has never had much nice to say about local eateries.”

I’ll get a chance in a few months to put out my own thoughts as to who’s up and who’s down when we release our own annual survey of the top 100 restaurants in the region, so I won’t wade into those waters now.

And it’s too easy to get into a tangle about Bethesda, which counts more than 200 restaurants, none of them great, and at most three or four that you might actually consider for a good meal out with friends. It’s a thoroughly mediocre scene.

But what struck me, as I read the guide, was the conspicuous absence of most of the restaurant world outside of DC.

Of the anointed 37—selected from some 80 meals the critic consumed in the course of his research—only six are from outside the District. Four northern Virginia restaurants—Green Pig Bistro, the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, Thai Square, and Water & Wall—made the cut, along with the Inn at Little Washington, the culinary extravaganza in the remote and tiny town of Washington, Virginia, that has been a virtual lock in the Post guide ever since Sietsema’s predecessor, Phyllis Richman, declared herself smitten. Only one Maryland restaurant earned a spot on the list—chef Spike Gjerde’s Woodberry Kitchen—and it’s in Baltimore.

“DC is where the action is,” Sietsema wrote, as if anticipating just the sort of carping we’re talking about.

Is it, though? It’s certainly where the hype is. If you were to spend a week or two reading food blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts, you would think that the entire food scene was confined to the 14th Street corridor, Shaw, H Street, Northeast, and the blunt end of Barracks Row, and that the only cooks in the city were young, tatted, and complicated.

On my weekly chat this Tuesday, a reader wrote asking what my top ten list would look like—presumably hoping to run mine up against Sietsema’s and create a little controversy.

I didn’t rank them, or put them in order of preference, but here’s what I came up with, off the top of my head: Komi. Mintwood Place. Central Michel Richard. Rose’s Luxury. The Red Hen. Vin 909 Winecafé. Fiola Mare. Thai Taste by Kob. Ananda. Sushi Capitol.

Only four of those—Mintwood Place, Rose’s, Fiola Mare and the Red Hen—line up with Sietsema’s ten, but that’s not the point I want to make here.

The point I want to make is that three of my ten are in Maryland. Vin 909 Winecafe—which I think slings the best pizzas in the area, in addition to sending out some gorgeous and imaginative small plates—is in Annapolis. Ananda, which I review in the magazine this month, is in Fulton; everybody I took with me couldn’t wait to return, and several said they thought it was better than Rasika. I’m not ready to make those kinds of pronouncements, but it did provide me with three of the most exciting, sumptuous meals I’ve had this year. And Thai Taste by Kob, which is putting out the best Thai food in the area right now, is in Wheaton.

I’ve heard over the years from readers who think that I make a point of singling out places in the suburbs because I have contempt for fine dining. Or because it makes me feel good to champion the underdog, the little guy. Neither is true. If I enthuse about places in the suburbs, it’s because they’re exciting to me.

I don’t care where I find that excitement, whether it’s a taqueria in a gas station (R&R Taqueria, in Elkridge) or a stall in an Asian market (Punjabi by Nature, in Chantilly), or a $600 dinner for two in the lush and rolling hills of rural Virginia (the Inn at Little Washington).

I don’t think it’s possible to care about great food and not seek out the suburbs. And exurbs. And hinterlands. DC isn’t New York, although the comparison is made so often you would think that the two cities were in a rivalry. The scene that most nearly resembles DC’s is LA, with its mind-throttling sprawl and abundance of great ethnic dining.

Without the various cultures that have entered the region over the past couple of decades—Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Korean, Bolivian, Peruvian, Afghan—I don’t even want to think about what the food scene would look like. I certainly don’t think I’d be as excited to cover it. As a diner, I know I’d be much the poorer.

I mentioned up top that I was loath to reveal my thinking about which restaurants are likely to make our 100 Best, but I spent some time over the past couple of days wondering what my own list of 37 might look like.

Surely it would include Saba, in Fairfax, the Yemeni restaurant I’ve written about a number of times over the past couple of weeks . Taha Alhoraivi’s cooking is rich and aromatic and carefully detailed. A reader tweeted me several days ago to thank me for the recommendation, writing of the haneeth, a hearty preparation of lamb over rice: “I never knew rice could taste so amazing!” You and me, both, Ryan.

Bangkok Golden, with its stunning Lao menu, would be on there, too. So would Rice Paper, in the Eden Center, where service has improved noticeably; the kitchen, meanwhile, was in top form on Sunday, sending out some of the most rewarding Vietnamese cooking in the area.

I’d give serious consideration to Bistro 7107, the Filipino restaurant in Crystal City I reviewed a couple months ago. I think chef Pete Snaith is doing some pretty terrific things in translating the cuisine to a mass audience. The sisig is one of the best pork dishes I’ve eaten all year—imagine a sizzling skillet of fajitas, only swap out the steak or chicken for crispy pig ears and belly, and give the whole thing a good dousing of calamansi juice.

Gypsy Soul, the RJ Cooper restaurant in Merrifield, is in this conversation, too I keep thinking about the fabulous chicken-fried quail with grits and gizzard gravy. And those maddeningly addictive fried chicken skins.

I could see Rus Uz, the Uzbek restaurant in Arlington, making the cut. I recently had a wonderful meal that began with good borscht and samsa, a peppered meat pastry, and moved onto several varieties of dumpling, including the fabulous manti, a kind of ravioli fillled with ground lamb and onions and capped thickly with sour cream and chives.

If only for the salteñas and arepas, I’d think long and hard about La Caraqueña, in Falls Church, which I’ve lately taken to calling the best motel restaurant in the country. Abay Market, also in Falls Church, has food as good as anything I ate in the restaurants in Ethiopia on my recent trip—I’d think long and hard about it, too. Kogiya, in Annandale, is putting out the best Korean barbecue I’ve ever had in this area.

That’s nine restaurants in the ’burbs, and we haven’t even gotten out of Northern Virginia.

In Maryland, to go with the three I already listed, I’d probably include Sushi Sono, where last week I had a better (and cheaper) dinner than my recent one at Sushi Taro in DC. The highlight: a butterfish prepared three ways. After we’d finished our nigiri and sashimi, the waitress spirited the carcass away, returning to the table ten minutes later with the fried bones. We sprinkled on sea salt and munched them like potato chips.

If Thai Taste by Kob is my new number 1 for Thai, Ruan Thai, also in Wheaton, is my number 2. And some days, my 1b.

Curry Leaf in Laurel is one of the top Indian restaurants in the area, and I love its Hyderabadi specialties. A case could definitely be made for its inclusion.

The Greek restaurant Trapezaria, with its superlative fried cod and skordalia, and the dumpling house, China Bistro (a.k.a. Mama’s Dumplings)—both in Rockville—would be strong candidates, too.

That’s 17 suburban restaurants under consideration. Let’s say 13 actually earned a spot.

We’re talking, then, about slightly more than a third of the list. Which sounds about right to me—an accurate reflection of the scene as I see it.

Two, three years ago I might have put Jackie’s or 8407 Kitchen + Bar on this hypothetical list, but the former has lost its spark while the latter has slid into mediocrity. (Talented pastry chef Rita Garruba has left, among others, and the restaurant is now outsourcing its desserts to a local bakery.)

So—surprise—no places from Silver Spring.

And—no surprise—nothing from Bethesda.

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