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. A finalist for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, he took home first-place honors for feature writing, in 2013, from the Association of Food Journalists.
He is the author, most recently, 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. Barnes & Noble and The Oxford American both made it an Editor’s Pick. The Richmond TImes-Dispatch called it “an outstanding piece of literature.”
Kliman 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: email@example.com
WHERE TO EAT NOW:
Not cheap for H St., but the quality of the fish is high and 24-year-old chef Carlos is a talent. His plates are striking, and his flavors pop. Ocopa functions best when you think of it as a place to divvy up small plates of tiradito and ceviche and causa (his version of papa a la huancaina, a potato salad, is so sublime it makes the picnic staple you’re probably imagining look like prison food) while tanking down cocktails (among which you’ll find expert renditions of pisco and rum punch).
At a recent meal at this Yemeni gem, I ate injera, pita, and wheat bread (the latter baked for a marvelous bread pudding called masoob, layered with bananas, cream, honey and nigella that is a little bit different with each bite). Owner Taha Alhoraivi didn’t know how to cook a single dish from his tradition when he arrived in the States 15 years ago on a student visa. He didn’t even know how to cook. His mother and sister had barred him from the kitchen; cooking was women’s work. He subsisted for months on eggs, bread and cheese, until he returned home for a visit and prevailed upon the women in his family to share their recipes with him. Thus began a 15-year-journey of research and experimentation, as Alhoraivi sought to recreate the foods of his youth in isolation. Saba is the remarkable result. The two must-orders are the haneeth and the fahsa. The former is a strapping platter of slow-cooked lamb, seasoned with cardamom, cumin and cloves, that comes apart without prodding and some of the most flavorful rice you’ll ever eat — each grain is distinct, and tastes richly of the meat. The latter is a shredded beef stew in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and cumin so concentrated it might as well be a syrup; the crowning touch is a dollop of hilbeh, a tangy dip flavored with mint and cilantro.
Casa Luca, DC
The most casual of the restaurants in Fabio Trabocchi’s collection has found its groove. This is an assured operation from top to bottom, and from its opening nibbles to its pastas (go for the San Leo — ravioli stuffed with wild greens and ricotta and treated to a sauce of butter, toasted almonds and nepitella) to its dazzling preparations of fish and seafood to its light, colorful and exquisitely crafted desserts. I joked to a friend at dinner recently that the cornish hen minestrone was “too flavorful” — its broth so intense and rich that I had to stop talking and give all my attention to it.
Ray’s to the Third, Arlington
It’s as stripped down as a restaurant can get; even some food trucks pay more attention to creating an experience. But it still makes the best burger around, the steak ’n’ cheese is better than a Philly cheesesteak, and the milkshakes, including a booze-spiked Bananas Foster, are fabulous.
DGS Delicatessen, DC
Founding chef Barry Koslow has left to open Pinea, set to make its debut any day now at the W Hotel, but things haven’t exactly slacked with new chef Brian Robinson. It’s almost impossible to come here and not gorge on matzo ball soup (note to the kitchen: a wee bit more schmaltz in the broth, please), chopped chicken liver, and pastrami, but there’s a lot more here than just deli. (What am I saying, “just deli”? Since when is deli itself not enough? And this deli especially.) The tongue gyro is terrific. So is the chicken schnitzel, made with pounded chicken thighs; it comes with whipped potatoes and tangy red cabbage, and puts you in mind of something you’d see at Central Michel Richard. A new dessert is also a winner: a banana split with salted caramel ice cream and toasted almonds.
Baby Wale, DC
I’d love Tom Power’s place just for the go-go soundtrack alone — on a recent Saturday night, it simmered with the chunky syncopations of the godfather of the scene, Chuck Brown. (Wind me up, Chuck!) The thing to do is to order up a glass of wine — any wine (Power knows his stuff; his list is fantastic) — and a bowl of soup — any soup (Power makes some of the best in the city) — and then settle in with the terrific ribeye and fries.
Gypsy Soul, Falls Church
An outtake from my recent review: “Gypsy Soul is informed by Southern cooking in the same way that Kid Rock is informed by country music. Like chef R.J. Cooper, Rock hails from Detroit, is tatted, has long stringy hair and fancies himself a kind of badass vagabond. Like Cooper, his gift is in braiding strands that aren’t generally braided.” I love the chicken fried quail, one of the most perfect high-end dishes out there right now (perfectly conceived, perfectly executed), the chicken skins are maddeningly addictive, the oyster stew manages to be both daring and delicious, and the crabcake gets it exactly right. There have been problems, in the early going, with salting (both under- and over-), and some dishes haven’t delivered the promised richness or depth. I expect these wrinkles to unwrinkle over time. The too-slick space is another matter.
Two of the best meals I had this summer took place here. And I don’t say that just because of the food coming out of the kitchen. The restaurant itself is a showpiece. From outside, it looks a little like a castle and a little like a bank, and sits in the middle of nowhere, amid a still-evolving development of townhouses in Fulton, Md. Inside, the space summons a polo club. The main dining room is a sumptuous lair of handsome dark wood, floor-to-ceiling bookcases and leather seats, while the veranda puts you in mind of an observation deck for a cricket match (it’s already one of the best places to dine on an unseasonably cool summer night, under the gently rotating fans and looking out on the lush treetops). In an age of casual, sometimes dashed-out service, Ananda leans toward greater formality — but without stuffiness. The young, affable waitstaff is got up in vests and ties, and is exceedingly well-drilled — not just attentive but vigilant, and determined to learn what it can do to make your meal better. The restaurant is the third from brothers Keir and Binda Singh, who also run The Ambassador Dining Room and Banjara, both in Baltimore. They maintain their own farm not far from the restaurant, complete with an herb garden — a highly unusual practice for an Indian restaurant in this area. Add to that the quality of the meats and fishes, which is several notches above that of the curry house, and you have a brand of cooking that is lighter and fresher than any Indian restaurant in the area not named Rasika. Given this emphasis, you might expect the dishes to experiment a little, to rethink traditional dishes in whimsical or dramatic ways. But for the most part Ananda is attempting a different, less obvious kind of fusion — the fusion of the local-leaning bistro with the conventional Indian restaurant. The preparations of black dal, chana, and raita are among the most complex I’ve tasted in years, and unexpectedly clean-tasting. A dish of salmon was perfectly roasted, with a subtle melange of tomatoes, cinnamon and cumin for a sauce. A watermelon salad with feta could have stood in for any trendy bistro in DC, except that its spicing was unmistakably Indian, and the dressing and its garnishes were both so stunningly fresh I would have thought I was dining at some gastronomic getaway in the country. I could have eaten three bowls of a recent special, a chilled summer squash and carrot soup, subtly spiced and tasting of fresh vegetables, not cream.
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’s willing to accommodate any requests, but adds that his aunt’s cooking isn’t 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).
Sushi Capitol, DC
This is a diminished sushi scene: Makoto is no longer special, Kushi has exited, and Sushi-Ko I is gone. That leaves Sushi Taro and Sushi Capitol, and for me, right now, it’s not a debate. Capitol is not as polished an experience as Taro, but neither is it the Zen-like spa of hushed voices and restrained manners — an Important Restaurant to save up for when you are looking to mark an occasion. This is a simple, unassuming spot, a workaday spot, with good, well-sourced fish and a chef who knows how to enhance the raw product without sacrificing the elegance essential to the form. Minoru Ogawa was previously in charge of sushi operations at every Mandarin Oriental property along the Eastern seaboard. He’s a purist at the bar, abjuring gimmicks, fads and clutter. The pieces are small, with tiny pads of rice, and the fish is sliced thin and delicately and draped just so over the pads. This doesn’t just make for an elegant presentation; it ensures that each bite is in balance, with the right proportion of fish to rice. I was in most recently for the omakase, which, at $50 for somewhere between 16-20 pieces, amounts to a sweetheart of a deal in the sushi world — particularly when the yellowtail is so sweet and still tastes of the sea, and the various white fishes are not simply there for padding, and the hand-rolls (passed across the bar as soon as they’re finished, their wrappers warm and crunchy) come with fresh-chopped toro. If you order a la carte, don’t ignore the rolls. The Florida roll, draped with whitened bands of blowtorched salmon belly and sliced avocado, is a stunner in every sense.
SHARING MEALS, CONT. FROM LAST WEEK ……….:
Your answer to the question last week about planning a second date at an Ethiopian restaurant struck a chord with me.
When I was actually going on dates with new people, I would always choose someplace where we could share food. Not Ethiopian necessarily – Mezza or Tapas worked well, as did large shared Indian or Pakistani or Perian dishes. I even tried sushi place once…
My first date with my girlfriend was at Rose’s Luxury, and we’ve been together for almost a year.
There is just such a shared intimacy in dinning in that way. You learn so much about a person when you’re forced to communicate likes and dislikes, compromise on the pork belly and the pumpkin soup, and let the other person in on the stories of friends or travel that each dish evokes. And you get to try more items!
Sharing actual food with someone – not just “sharing a meal” – leaves no where to hide (and that’s a very good thing).
I mean, it can be.
It definitely can be.
When it’s the right people, or person, even if you’ve just met — there’s something magical about those meals.
I’ve been fortunate to break bread with relative strangers all over the world, and those experiences are as meaningful to me as dinners with friends an family.
It all depends on the people, of course. I’ve shared meals with people I didn’t like or respect or enjoy, and those meals were a burden from start to finish — even if the food was terrific.
Good luck to you and your girlfriend …
And it’s pretty neat that Rose’s is a part of your story. I’ll bet it’s part of many people’s stories by this point.
OBELISK, ON P ST., OFF DUPONT CIRCLE ……….:
Does Obelisk still exist and if so is it still worthwhile?
Before I moved to DC a couple of years ago, I was casually following the food scene as I am originally from this area, and I feel like I heard this restaurant mentioned often as a great one.
Since moving, I’ve not heard it mentioned once as a recommendation for a place to go under any scenario, and upon stumbling upon an old thread on a message board where Obelisk was discussed, I got curious.
So, what’s the verdict on this place?
It exists, and it’s good.
As to why it’s seldom mentioned — well, I think it has a lot to do with foodie culture. The Instagrammers and Tweeters and Facebookers, they’re hot for the new. Hot for being first to a place. Hot for helping to establish the rep of a place. Hot for getting their names out there and saying: I exist; I matter.
Obelisk has been around for two decades. It is very squarely in the not-now. That’s part of what makes it, it. It is fiercely, proudly, stubbornly resistant to faddishness.
The funny thing is, it was that way back when it opened, too.
It has been resisting trends for two decades.
That tells you something.
What I also find interesting is that the Obelisk model, if you will, is the template for many of the restaurants that are and have been buzzed about. Komi owes a debt to the place, a huge debt. But so does nearly every low-key, semi-casual, seasonal, ingredient-focused, chef-driven restaurant in the city.
Obelisk was way ahead of its time. It took the city about 15 years to catch up.
Now, a couple of things.
Do I love it? I love what it embodies. I love its antipasti selection. I love its desserts. I love its vibe. I love its feel. I love its staff.
Its mid-section, its main courses, are the weak link. And that’s not a small weak link. I wish they were more interesting, more exciting, more delicious.
Part of what Obelisk exists to do, is to de-emphasize the main course, the way the Italians de-emphasize it. I get that. I wish the restaurant worked more to drive that idea home. I wish that everything didn’t move toward the main course the way it does now.
A criticism, yes. And a major one. But I still regard a night out here as a treat.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: LALIGURAS — INDIAN AND NEPALESE IN VAN NESS ……….:
Have you eaten at Laliguras in Van Ness?
Recently tried it over the weekend and was really impressed – ordered a few classics (lamb vindaloo and murgh masala) along with sides of naan and papri chaat, and everything we ate was fantastic! Extremely flavorful with the right amount of heat, and our waiter couldn’t have been nicer.
While I’m happy to have it in walking distance, it makes me wonder how a place like that would fare in a busier area like Shaw or 14th Street. There were 4 other couples sitting down to eat around 8pm on Saturday, and while the restaurant could use some work (the atmosphere is a bit formal, and much-needed background music to fill the quiet space didn’t turn on until about halfway through our meal) I’d hate to see a good restaurant disappear because it doesn’t get great foot traffic.
I’ve refrained from writing anything about the place, but I guess I’ll have to now.
Granted, I only went once, but then again, so did you.
I found it dreadful. The curries tasted thin and underdeveloped. The bread was doughy. The servers were smiling and nice, but bumbling in the extreme.
If I have a meal like that at a place, I either make a point of returning in a couple of months or decide not at all. In this case, I decided not at all. I simply didn’t see anything promising.
All I need to see, to return to a disappointing or bad place, is one memorable thing — a dish, a great server, the fact that they’ve had the good sense to play Roy Haynes on the sound system.
But anyway, I’m curious to know something — what would you all like to see me do in the future with a place like this? A place I visit once, and find that everything is bad.
Would you like me to put it out there in a short review up top — or would you rather I just not write about it, sparing the operation the criticism? I’ve generally chosen to go the latter route, unless it’s a high-profile failure.
But in your view, should I?
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: CASA LUCA, ON 11TH ST. IN DC ……….:
I had lunch at Casa Luca last week. I had the afternoon off and got there around 1:30 and sat at the bar.
Half order of the fusilli cacio e pepe and the filet (on greens and tomato). Both were great. I also ordered the cookies and sweets and an old-fashioned for dessert. Again, both were great.
My only complaint was that in an empty bar (and nearly empty restaurant), I was dining alone and having drink, but I felt like I was bothering the bartender each time I wanted something.
I worked in restaurants/bars for a long while, and would have liked a nice fat tab (and a patient customer) in the mid-day lull. To be fair, he was polite and checked in occasionally, and the other bartender or server (Jeff) saved the day by actually engaging in conversation.
I would go back and sit at the bar again, absolutely, but sometimes, on a Tuesday, when you’re having a few drinks and lunch, you want the bartender to be a little interested.
I agree with you wholeheartedly.
In part, that’s why you sit at the bar as a solo diner. To have a chance to chat. To not feel alone. To become part of the mix.
Checking in occasionally, as you say, being polite — these are not, generally, reasons we plunk ourselves down on a bar stool to dine.
I just want to head off on an ever-so-slight tangent here and say that this city has some superlative bartenders. Pro’s pros, who not only can mix you a killer drink, but also chat you up and make your day with a witty quip, talk sass when that’s what’s called for, engage in high-level foodie banter or discourse on philosophy, salve your spiritual wounds when it’s late and quiet, whatever.
I love a great bartender.
Yes, even more than I love discovering that there exists sculpture-grade ice. Or learning about ratios and formulas and new small-batch spirits coming into the market.
To me, part of sitting down and having a drink is not just the nerd-level knowledge the ‘tender is going to impart, but all the other stuff that the best bartenders do without even thinking.
A DINING ETIQUETTE QUESTION ……….:
My husband and I walked into Red Hen on Saturday evening around 5:45, hoping to eat at the bar as we often do. There were two empty seats left, but one was on either side of another couple, seated at the corner of the bar.
So to be clear, if the couple moved down one seat in either direction, there would’ve been two seats next to each other for me and my husband to use. It didn’t even occur to me that it could be a big deal to ask these people to slide down one, since I wouldn’t hesitate to do so if I were in their situation.
I approached them very politely and said something to the effect of: “I’m so sorry to interrupt, but we’re hoping to eat at the bar, too, and I just wondered if you could possibly move over one.”
The woman looked at me like I’d committed some kind of a crime– like mouth agape and everything. The guy gave me a similar expression before stating that they’d arrived early enough to get the corner seats and they weren’t willing to sacrifice them. Maybe that part is somewhat valid? Is the corner that much better real estate than the rest of the bar? I don’t know.
Again, if I had been in their situation, I would not have hesitated to make room. It just seems like the decent thing to do. I would also consider it a courtesy to the restaurant to make room for more paying customers. We’ve told the story to some friends since it happened and they all agree with us. But I’d be curious to hear your and the other chatters’ thoughts.
Was the couple occupying the right angle — in other words, one person at the end of one flank of the bar, the other person at the end of the other flank of the bar?
To me, that’s an ideal seating arrangement at the bar. I don’t know whether that’s the case for others — that is, whether it’s coveted by other diners.
Actually, I’d be curious to know how the rest of you feel about corner seats at the bar? If you’re there with a date or a spouse, do you regard them as the prize seats at the bar?
But back to your question …
If it wasn’t the corner seats — if it was just the two of them sitting there on one flank of the bar — then I think they were being kind of pissy.
I mean, it’s not a table. It’s a bar.
A bar is a communal place. You don’t sit at a bar in order to block out the rest of the world and dine. Actually, a table in most cases is not a place to block out the rest of the world and dine, either, but that’s another story.
If you sit at a bar, you are saying, in effect: I am opening myself up to all the people around me. To the bartender, to the other customers. You are saying: I am making myself a part of a wider experience.
That means, yes, talking to people around you if you have even a modicum of personality. Or not reacting with a shudder or a sense of violation if someone next to you, a stranger, should strike up a conversation.
But over and over and over, I see people sitting at a bar and acting as if they’re in some kind of a protective seal, oblivious to all those who are not serving them.
I’m curious how the rest of you think about sitting at the bar.
And how you react to the story of the couple at the Red Hen — should they have moved, or were they right to stay planted where they were?
WINE MARK-UPS, CONT. ……….:
On the question of wine by the glass markups – generally restaurants try to cover the cost of the bottle wholesale with the first glass. There is a lot of loss on by the glass pours as bottle often sour before being sold. Especially when you see diverse or very small lists.
I’m not saying this is true everywhere. Its an industry baseline though to prevent total loss.
I think the thing that everyone is frustrated with, is seeing so many wines by the glass out there going for $14.
And these are not amazing wines, most of them. They’re good wines. Or OK wines. Two glasses — one, a white, to go with your appetizer, and another, a red, to go with your main course — and you’re paying more than some entrees.
Restaurants have high costs, I understand that.
But I think what we’re seeing, now, is chefs using other parts of the menu to cover for the fact that they can’t bring themselves to price a pork loin or something at $38.
So what happens?
The glasses of wine sell for $14.
A single scoop of ice cream — unsauced, unadorned, unaccompanied by a cookie or a tuile — goes for $9.
And appetizers … have you seen what is happening to appetizers?
Here’s the current lineup, listed online, of a highly-regarded restaurant:
Sashimi of Hamachi with Spring Garlic Panna Cotta $23
Biretta with Stinging Nettle and Housemade Ricotta $19
Foie Gras Terrine with Rhubarb and Toasted Brioche $25
Asparagus Salad with Poached Chicken Egg $22
Lobster Bisque $20
Potato Gnocchi with Cockles and Mussels $19
Filipino Street BBQ $19
Ceviche of Atlantic Triple Tail with Heirloom Beets $24
(note: I’ve omitted some identifying adjectives, mostly having to do with farmer suppliers.)
These are first courses. Warm-ups to the actual meal.
A DINING ETIQUETTE QUESTION, CONT. ……….:
Thanks for taking the question, and yes, they were sitting at a right angle, so I guess maybe that does make their reason for staying put more valid?
Either way, it was their attitude more than anything that we found really surprising. It wouldn’t have taken much for them to be more gracious about it. Instead, it felt like they went out of their way to make me feel inferior.
That kind of behavior… I just can’t relate to it.
But what you call “that kind of behavior” — I find that all over DC. And not just in the restaurants and bars.
I don’t just mean DC proper. I mean inner Montgomery County and parts of northern Virginia, too.
It’s interesting that the couple in question was so wedded to those particular seats — to sitting at the right angle. I can definitely understand that. And I can definitely understand why they would have been reluctant to give up what they had.
But I guess I come back to the fact that it’s a bar. And at a bar, you don’t exist in a zone of your own. You’re public. And that means obeying the social contract.
SITTING AT THE BAR, CONT. ……….:
Just did the same thing at the (too small) bar at DGS. The last 2 seats were split by a pair of diners.
Not only should people move over politely if it allows more people to get a seat, especially at restaurant bars where people are likely to eat, I think you’re kind of a tool if you sit in a way that leaves an orphan seat.
I actually didn’t use the corner of the bar at Macon the other day because it would have left a one-sie.
A tool, really?
I guess we have different meanings for the expression.
I think you’re a tool if you go to a restaurant only because everybody’s talking about it, or if you willingly advertise a product for a company (on a T-shirt, for instance) without being personally (and lavishly) compensated.
But you bring up the idea of people moving over politely — is this to say that you think that it’s incumbent upon people who are sitting at the bar, in an arrangement like the one the chatter described, to move over without being asked to? Should that couple be aware of the moment and, without anyone saying anything, voluntarily get up and slide down?
Incidentally, since we’re talking about etiquette — what is really right in a situation like this? Or any situation in the restaurant world, or in the world, period, in which people want something and someone else is in the way of their getting or achieving that something, mostly because they have something and want to keep that something?
Is the right thing what seems to a majority of people like the nice thing to do?
I ask this sincerely.
Because matters of etiquette are so tricky.
So many people get very, very exercised about what is right and what is wrong, and often in situations where what is right and what is wrong are not spelled out. Or not immediately obvious.
SITTING AT THE BAR, CONT. + BUYING A HAM ……….:
I cannot imagine why that couple wasn’t willing to adjust one seat over….and I love sitting at a bar–even if tables are available.
Off topic, where is the best place to buy a nice local ham for Thanksgiving?
Are you saying you’re looking to buy a ham from locally raised pigs?
That’s an interesting one.
I’d love to know, myself. Anybody out there know?
CASA LUCA RESPONDS ……….:
Responding to “Report from the Field: Casa Luca”
We apologize for the lack of hospitality and personal service you experienced at our bar. This is certainly not the kind of experience we strive for, and we would like the chance to make it up to you. We are debuting our new barrel aged cocktail, the Scacco Matto, on November 16, and we cordially invite you for a complimentary first taste and some great conversation.
Please contact our General Manager, TJ Monoyez, at 202-628-1099 or firstname.lastname@example.org, so that we can make the arrangements. Again, our most sincere apologies.
Very speedy, Casa Luca.
And very impressive.
SAINT MICHEL BAKERY, IN ROCKVILLE — CLOSED ……….:
In really sad news, Saint Michel bakery has closed!!
Do we have any idea why?
It breaks my heart that we have lost yet another authentic, small business who worked so hard to remain true to the trade and the traditions of French baking.
I was so upset to see the sign on the door, and wonder if we can enjoy the amazing baked goods anywhere else in the future?? Can you do some digging Todd?
I can. I will.
That’s sad. I loved that place.
If you never went, let me set the picture. Imagine a tiny space full of remarkable breads and pastries. And full of remarkable yeasty smells.
Now, widen the lens. Imagine it on a side road of an industrial park. Tucked in among businesses that are neither boutique nor artisanal.
I still remember dropping by one day for some baguettes and sandwiches, and seeing a cab pull up.
I thought this was strange, and interesting, so I sidled over to the driver. He told me that the woman inside was from Potomac, and came to the bakery a couple times a week.
SECRET TAQUERIA IN ADAMS MORGAN? ……….:
Todd – what is this secret hidden taqueria you mention in Adams Morgan?
We’re all dying to know!!
I don’t think it’s a secret anymore.
I first wrote about Taqueria Juquilita three-and-a-half years ago.
The short review I did for the chat February 8, 2011:
Here’s how the most interesting dinner I’ve had in ages began: A man on the second story of a Columbia Heights apartment building looked out the window, found a group of us standing on the street below, and tossed us a key.
Past the double doors we went, up to the second floor, where a door near the corner had graciously been left open. Immediately we were standing in a tiny kitchen and eat-in area with a makeshift communal table that seats eight. Outside, it was hovering above freezing; inside, mere steps from the stove and oven, where two cooks worked frenziedly in tandem, it was so hot that we worked up a sweat in minutes. We joined a party of four, who sat amid a happy clutter of bowls, most of them containing various homemade salsas.
Most of the underground restaurants I’ve read about and visited make their names serving elaborate, multi-course meals — the product of moonlighting chefs or serious-minded cooks looking to indulge their gourmet tastes and try the biz on for size. Taqueria Juquilita is thus an intriguing exception. It’s not just a restaurant on the down-low. It’s a downscale restaurant on the down-low.
The inspiration is Oaxaca, birthplace of mole and the source of some of the most exciting regional cooking to be found in Mexico. The smell of frying onions and the promise of unearthing a genuine discovery made us over-order: three sets of tacos, two quesadillas, a tamal stuffed with chicken, a monstrous bowl of goat soup, and a tostada.
The biggest criticism that can be levied against the place is that the meats in the tacos (lengua, al pastor, carnitas) tend to be dry, but the same can be said of many commercial restaurants, too. And the tortillas and the salsas are so good, it often doesn’t matter.
The tortillas are handmade and might be the best I’ve had in the area; the salsas I sampled — including two kinds of salsa verde and a mole — were as good as, if not better than, their counterparts at Oyamel. My favorite was a tostada piled high with chicken tinga — a fresh, fried tortilla smeared with refried beans, topped with shredded dark meat chicken mixed with a complex and spicy red sauce and finished off with crumbled queso fresco. A goat soup was nearly as good, its tender hunks of meat bobbing in a chili broth so red it looked like borscht.
When it was over, some two hours later, our eyes were stinging from the onions, our brows were wet (from the heat of the stove, but also from the heat of the chilis), and we were so stuffed that the idea of hitting an actual restaurant for dessert (our plan, going in) seemed like overkill.
I had figured that all my questions about running a restaurant on the down-low would be answered by paying a visit, but it was just the opposite. I was more curious, not less. As I bid my friends good night on the street below I realized I had many more questions than when I’d walked in. How do they do it? How are they able to avoid detection from the authorities? Where do they sleep?
I’m still wondering. But we had an agreement, the owners and I. I could write about the cooking all I wanted, but I could not disclose the owners’ names — nor could I print their address. I understood, too, that our little arrangement extended to other matters, complicated matters. I deigned not to probe.
Not that my curiosity has gone away. Far from it. For the last week, other, less troubling questions have risen up to take the place — a testament of the power of good food to make you forget more serious matters: What’s the secret of that marvelous mole? And what rough magic goes into those homemade tortillas?
REVIEWING NOT-GOOD, LITTLE-KNOWN PLACES + SITTING AT THE BAR, CONT. ……….:
Re: Laliguras, and your question about whether we want to hear about restaurants (other than big name, splashy openings) that you eat at once and don’t find any reason to return to, I would like to hear about those.
On occasion, I try a hole in the wall restaurant I’ve never heard of, wondering if I’m about to discover the next R&R Taqueria or Fast Gourmet – it hasn’t happened yet. But it would be useful to know in advance that I’m wasting my time.
What I’d be even more interested to hear about are restaurants that you don’t think are worth traveling for, but that you’d be happy to have in your neighborhood – especially if they happen to be in my neighborhood!
I’m also curious to know how you find out about restaurants like this in the first place (i.e., less expensive places in untrendy parts of town that don’t have big names attached to them). Do they have PR people who email you, do you drive around the city looking for places you haven’t heard of, or…?
Finally, regarding the people at the bar at Red Hen, I think the couple wasn’t being unreasonable to not give up their seats if they were sitting perpendicular to one another rather than side-by-side – I can see how that would be a preferable seating arrangement. But they had no reason to be ungracious about it or act like the person making the request was a lunatic.
Although we don’t really know, do we, how they acted. We have one side, and that side says that the couple’s behavior was hideous. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it was not the smiling, genial response the asker was hoping for. Maybe the couple was caught up in conversation, and taken aback by the query. Who knows?
Thanks for weighing in on the question of whether I should be divulging the details of disappointing places I visit only once.
I’m interested in hearing from more of you on this. Maybe we need to continue this into next week.
As for how I find these places — no, definitely no from publicists. The publicists work for the big places you already know about. I spend a lot of each week just driving around. I read newspapers written in foreign languages (the ads are seldom in foreign languages); I even have subscriptions to a few of them. I read blogs — the known food blogs, yes, but also obscurer sites. I get tips from readers, and I chase them down (sometimes I find gold, sometimes not; but I never let a tip go unchecked).
To me, the chasing is the great fun of this gig. It’s easy to know about the places everybody knows about. The places certain interests want you to know about. But good food exists everywhere, and I think it’s the job of the critic to find it wherever it is. Four of the best meals you can have right now are at Sushi Capitol, Ananda, Vin 909, and Saba — all places that don’t get much public chatter, if any.
SITTING AT THE BAR, CONT. ………..:
Perhaps another factor in this is that people have to get to Red Hen early in order to get seats. Scarcity raises the value of the real estate.
When people sit at the bar for a meal instead of at a table, they might also be more likely to be territorial about their seats than, say, if they stopped in for a couple of drinks. They think of it as their “table” for a block of time. They planned to get that exact spot and they’re not giving it up to a later arrival.
But, you’re right: They’re at the bar, which is communal and different than sitting at a regular table. Bar etiquette so far as I have experienced it is that you move so other people can sit together when it’s crowded. Often people offer to move without even being asked.
When the bar is a substitute for a table, though, it gets a little murkier. Even so, I’ve eaten at the upstairs bar at Rose’s a number of times, and people there seem to accommodate each other in situations like this.
You sum up just how complicated a thing this is.
I think there’s a right thing to do, here, like you, like many chatters, but I also can see how someone would want to hold onto those seats. Which are, yes, seats at a bar, which is by definition a communal space, and so therefore the social contract must be obeyed.
Gotta run — lunch time!
Thanks so much for all the questions this week, everyone. As I said, I really do want to hear from all of you re: the question of reviewing the small unknown spot with bad or mediocre food. I think it’s an interesting question, and we’ve so far only heard one way or another. Hit me up this week if you can’t wait until next week — email@example.com
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 … [missing you, TEK … ]