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: firstname.lastname@example.org
WHERE TO EAT NOW:
Bob’s Shanghai 66, Rockville
If my most recent meal is any indication, the kitchen is really clicking right now. Go for the bean curd and pork — the long, thin bands of curd have the slipperiness and chew of great noodles, and the saucing is delicate and tight — and a plate of tiny shrimps in a surprisingly balanced sweet-and-sour chili sauce. The two best meals I’ve had in Rockville’s Chinatown in the past six months were at China Bistro (aka Mama’s Dumplings) and here.
Taqueria el Mexicano, Hyattsville
Someone tweeted me last week after reading what I wrote about the mole poblano: “what else is good there?” What else? What else do you need when a dish is this good? The sauce is the thing — thick, brown-black, dotted with sesame seeds, and with a taste as rich and complex as any of the French master sauces. At the same time, it’s infinitely more idiosyncratic; each bite changes the way you think about it: now sweet, now slightly bitter, now spicy, now slightly smoky. Dark chocolate is the not-so-secret ingredient, and gives the dish its identifiable color, but the strange, mysterious character of mole poblano cannot be chalked up, simply, to the inclusion of chocolate: the mix also includes sweet, smoky guajillo chilis, fried nuts and raisins, as well as a larder’s worth of toasted, ground spices. Each order comes with two pieces of unexpectedly tender chicken (in most cases, a leg and a piece of meat cut from around the breast), good rice and stewed beans, and — an even bigger surprise — two handmade corn tortillas (if there’s anybody making tortillas like this in the area, with this perfect, pebbly surface, please let me know; these are fabulous). The cost to walk away with a memory: $11.50.
Hunan Taste, Fairfax
This kitchen works magic. Not all the time — I’ve had a couple of eh dishes over the course of two visits. But then you turn up a dish like the mushroom casserole with pork (best not to study its long, dark tadpole-like fungi), or fish fillet with bean curd sauce, or Divine Incense Mint Pork (chewy-crunchy strips of pork belly with fried mint) and can’t stop eating, and wow.
Crane & Turtle, DC
Makoto Hamamura reminds me of a certain brand of jazz pianist, the kind who knows how to play melodically but frequently chooses not to. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe his French-Asian dishes as atonal or dissonant, but he clearly means to push, and push hard, against expectation. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. Or, it works and you say to yourself: Interesting; I’m not sure I’d get that again. Often enough, though, the rewards are there, like his tuna tataki, which is accented not with a ponzu sauce but with a tuna sauce — a sly little play on the Piedmontese classic, vitello tonnato. His signature dish, a duck breast that has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in summer, isn’t paired with something sweet, like cherries — a move that many chefs in the West would make; Hamamura turns to bitter, in this case to seaweed yuba and tahini.
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.
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.
CHEF FRANK RUTA AT CAPELLA ……….:
Has Frank Ruta taken over the kitchen at the Grill Room yet? What’s the deal? I’m missing his amazing soup and gnocchi.
And the deal? I don’t yet know what the deal is. Still too soon to say.
I will say, though, that they guy’s a terrific cook, for anyone too new to the city to know, or too young to remember, and anywhere he is has landed is bound to be, at the very least, interesting. Stay tuned to this space to see whether it is, in the end, more than interesting but great and memorable.
I hope you’re all staying warm and cozy.
I also hope that your joining in each week is not simply a function of boredom at work ;), and that if you’re snowed in at home today you’ll connect and take part …
Whatall’s on your mind this bone-chillingly cold day?
Something I don’t think you’ve talked about on here in a while or maybe I missed it, but what are your favorite places to drink coffee?
I’m sitting at home on my couch today, er, working from home today, with a cup of Stumptown. 😮
I like Stumptown, too.
I haven’t thought to make an official list, so this is all in no particular order, but I like Qualia in Petworth, Shagga and Vigilante in Hyattsville, La Colombe in Shaw, and Sidamo on H St.
I should clarify — that’s a list of places I like to go and drink coffee. I also happen to really like those coffees.
I’d add Filter to the list of coffees I like.
And Tryst to the list of places I like to drink coffee, if — big if — I can get a table.
If I had to pick a favorite cup, it would be the latte at Shagga. Or even just a regular cup of their (strong, dark, mellow, rich) coffee with steamed milk. Wonderful stuff.
SLIGO CAFE IN SILVER SPRING ……….:
Have you been to the newest restaurant in downtown Silver Spring, Sligo Cafe?
On the menu: creative comfort food, local beers, and craft cocktails at neighborly prices. 923 Sligo Ave, Silver Spring, MD 20910.
Eh, it’s a snow day, what the hell, you can come on and shill for your restaurant. 🙂
PENN QUARTER EATS ……….:
Todd, where would you go to eat in Gallery Place/Chinatown right now?
It’s been a while since I’ve been down to the Verizon Center, and we’re heading there this weekend. Other than an OK meal at Clyde’s and a not-good meal at Nando’s a few years ago, that’s about it.
We are up for literally any cuisine, and are looking for a sit-down place, rather than a fast-casual/eat and go option.
I like what Kyoo Eom is doing at Poste, in the Hotel Monaco. He’s taken the kitchen back back back back.
This is not just old-school French, it’s a particular kind of old-school: the laborious, intricate kind, the kind that has gone way, way out of fashion.
A terrific French onion soup with beef short rib. A slow-cooked salmon with a citrus beurre blanc. And the best dish I had in the course of three meals there this past Fall — a crispy ravioli of duck that was not quite a ravioli, more like an (unintentionally) half-finished napoleon; I could have eaten ten of them.
FROM CHEF DANIEL SINGHOFEN ……….:
I just wanted to let you know as of the 1st of the month I’ve taken the helm at Macon Bistro & Larder. Tony Brown has seen fit to hand me the helm and I am now the executive chef. We’re going through a few growing pains, as to be expected but I’m excited to take the culinary lead at the restaurant. As a new parent a huge aspect of any position is quality of life and a strong understanding of family… Tony has four daughters varying in age from 5 to 16 so he certainly understands work life balance. We see eye to eye in most aspects of the culinary future of the restaurant and I’m very excited to forge a future with Tony and Macon.
As an added bonus, Macon already seems a bit like home; Gene our GM is a old and dear friend, AJ our Assistant GM worked for me at Eola. I’m also excited to tell you Jenna Pool my sous chef at Eola of three plus years is moving back from the west cost to be my Chef de Cuisine at Macon. I feel like many of the high points of my career are all joining together again to build something very special and very new. Macon is very different than what I’ve done in the past but also very comforting in the best of ways.
I look forward to the challenges ahead.
All the best to you and yours,
Chef, it’s good to hear from you.
We’ve gotten a few questions over the past few weeks or months about your whereabouts, so it’s good to be able to update everyone.
Good luck to you over there. I’ll be interested in seeing how things evolve at Macon.
For those who don’t know the name, chef Singhofen was most recently at Blue Duck Tavern. Before that, he was the chef at his own place, Eola, on P St. in Dupont Circle, a restaurant in the vein of Obelisk and the early Komi — a spare, personal place that focused almost exclusively on food and drink, and that clung stubborn to its own particular vision of what a restaurant ought to be.
Chef Singhofen was also among the most enthusiastic chefs in the city in pushing and promoting offal in dishes. He even used offal in his amuse bouches — most memorably, a cured duck heart, I believe.
Chef, I hope we see some fun little things like this at Macon …
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: WATER & WALL IN ARLINGTON ……….:
I had a great brunch over the weekend at Water & Wall.
I had their hash, which had some really interesting spices in it, still trying to figure out what they were. I like that their dishes, while approachable, always have an interesting flavor profile. But this one is really stumping me in a good way.
I know that the chef there, Tim Ma, is a pretty devoted reader of this chat, so perhaps when he has a moment (I think he told me once, via an email, that he almost always reads it a couple of days later) he can illuminate us a little.
Did the spicing lean Asian? Or Creole, maybe?
COFFEE, CONT. & SILVER SPRING EATS? ……….:
Please add Zeke’s on Rhode Island Ave to your list of great local coffee.
Also…..My husband and I have our list of old standard places to eat in Silver Spring/Wheaton, including Jackie’s, 8407, Nava Thai, and the new Thai Taste. But are always looking to try new places for the occasional date night. What are some additional places you’d recommend — ambiance isn’t as important as quality food….
How about Nainai’s in Silver Spring?
Here’s a short review I did: https://www.washingtonian.com/restaurantreviews/restaurant-review-nainais-noodle-dumpling-bar.php
I also like Mi La Cay — Vietnamese, in Wheaton. The noodle bowls are the thing, but the stuffed grape leaves are good, too, and you can also get what I think is the best banh mi outside of northern Virginia (assuming they got their delivery of bread that day). I like the cold cut.
As for Zeke’s, I love their storefront on Rhode Island, and kudos to them for having the vision to open outside of the usual power clusters. The coffee, though, I like but don’t love.
CHEF SINGHOFEN, CONT. ……….:
I have just added Macon Bistro & Larder to my list. Love Chef Singhofen cooking! Looking forward to seeing how he shapes the menu. I loved his cooking at Blue Duck, unfortunately never got to try his food at Eola.
I did try twice to attend the seafood/vegetarian menu at Little Serow but each time I got there, usually right after they opened, the next available table wasn’t for at least 3 plus hours. Hopefully next time.
See, chef? — you already have a fan looking to come to dinner …
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: THE PEACOCK ROOM IN GEORGETOWN + THOUGHTS COMMUNAL TABLES ……….:
Went to After peacock room in Georgetown this weekend and had a lovely meal, It was very quaint with nice decor. The food was quite good.
My only comment would be that it only had 3 tables, two long communal tables and a little table in the front for 2 people. For a potentiall romantic spot I wasn’t sure how I felt about the communal tables, luckily I was there with a girlfriend but would love to go there on a date.
Any thoughts on communal tables?
Personally, I love communal tables.
Most people don’t. Most people hate them. Almost no one willingly sits at the communal table. That’s one of the problems with it, that it’s often a last resort, and so people are grudging about it.
It can be a great thing, especially if you’re traveling — a way to get to know people and learn about a place.
Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savannah, for instance. That’s not just a meal. That’s an experience. A chance to learn about a people and a place and a way of life that, yes, has mostly vanished but not entirely, not quite.
But there, the communal table is not an “accent” to the room. It’s not an affectation, as it is in most restaurants that have communal tables. It’s the main option — in fact, the only option.
If there’s a communal table in a restaurant, what do you almost always see? You see two people sitting across from one another separated by the space of one seat. They’re not there, usually, because they want to be, because they’re drinking in the spirit of the thing. They’re there because nothing else is available. And that’s a shame.
The real communal table, in most cases in this country, is at a bar — a real bar, not a bar for professionals — where you see people sitting next to folks they might not ordinarily in daily life, talking and catching the game, or drinking and opining loudly about any and everything.
I think one of the reasons I like the communal table is that it embodies, for me, one of the reasons we go out. Yes, we go out to celebrate, just the two of us, and yes, there’s a place for quiet, relaxed conversation, but we also go out to get out of our heads (surely that can’t just be writers), to mix and mingle with people not us, to throw ourselves into the unknown and experience, just maybe, something we weren’t expecting, a moment of something interesting, or something sweet, or touching, or sad, or profound.
AN INTERESTING BIRTHDAY DINNER FOR TWO? ………..:
Any good recommendations for an interesting Birthday Dinner for two? We live on 14th, so we love Pearl Dive, B too, Le Diplomate etc. and are in a bit of a rutt when it comes to thinking of new restaurants to try.
Any new favorites that would be worth a try?
Does it have to be on 14th?
Does it have to be new?
I’d walk a few blocks east and plant yourselves on a couple of stools downstairs at Izakaya Seki. Wonderful little plates from the grill and the fryer and great sashimi from chef Seki, all washed down with very good sake.
Or, if you want to keep to 14th — Estadio for tapas?
ANY CHANGES AT THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON? ……….:
have you heard of any changes/improvements from the The Inn at Little Washington? Are they still sticking to the tasting menu or are they providing the a la carte option again?
And from the looks of their website, it would appear that they’re keeping their new format. Restaurant websites (as I’m sure you know, being the sort of food obsessive who goes onto online chat forums) are not often up-to-the minute, and are therefore not the most accurate guides to what a place is offering. But I would guess that the Inn at LW is more attentive to such matters than most, and that what’s there, right now, is at least pretty close to accurate.
Whether portions or presentations have changed within that format, I can’t say.
BIZARRE FOODS ……….:
I assume you’ve seen the Andrew Zimmern program “Bizarre Foods.” I was just wondering what are some things you refuse to eat? And what are some of the most bizarre things you’ve eaten?
I don’t think there’s anything I refuse to eat. I eat everything. And I’ll try anything.
There are things I like less than other things, just like anyone, but I know from my interactions with people over the years that it’s a far, far smaller list than most people have.
That may be why I eventually ended up doing something like this.
Bizarre things? Let’s see … I’ve eaten grasshoppers — fried, in tacos. And not, unfortunately, just A-grade grasshoppers, but B-grade, too. (You don’t want B-grade, trust me. Much more squishy.) I’ve eaten emu, rattlesnake, sea turtle (steak as well as innards), fish heads of many different varieties, fish eyeballs, and I’m sure a dozen more things that don’t come to mind right now …
This notion of bizarre is an interesting one. Bizarre has everything to do with your angle of vision. Take guinea pigs — or cui, as it’s referred to in Central and South America, where the creature is grilled on a spit and prized as a delicacy. Not bizarre. Or stinky tofu, which most Westerners cannot abide even being in the same room with. I know a woman who, every time she returns to Hong Kong, makes a point of seeking out her favorite vendor for stinky tofu. For her, it’s the ne plus ultra of gourmet goodies. She swoons at the memory.
Again: not bizarre.
What might an Easterner find bizarre? I think an Easterner would think something like Epoisses is truly weird. Or Taleggio. Two of the glories you can find in the world of cheese. And cheese, itself. Bizarre, absolutely bizarre.
CHEF SINGHOFEN, CONT. ……….:
Add another person to the list of those who are really excited about Macon’s new hire. I already like the place as an alternative to the so-so Bethesda dining scene, plus the service has always been friendly and accommodating.
Throw in some thoughtfully prepared offal and I’m sold.
The people — ok, two, and among a very small minority of eaters who are so fanatical about their food that they go onto public forums to talk about it, but hey …
The people have spoken, chef, and they want offal.
I love the “thoughtfully prepared” part. In other words, don’t just carve me out some pig parts and give ‘em a quick sautee. No: they must be thoughtfully prepared.
Gonna go grab some lunch …
Thanks for checking in on here on this cold and snowy day …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]