Kliman Says: Here Are The 10 Places to Go Now

A Persian strip-mall gem, a Charlottesville speakeasy, and the best Ethiopian food in the area.

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: tkliman@washingtonian.com

…………………………………………………………………………………………

TK’S 10: WHERE TO GO NOW …

Taqueria el Mexicano

7811 Riggs Rd., Hyattsville; (301) 434-0104

Best Mexican food in the area. Nothing else comes close. Get the pork in adobo and the mole poblano. And don’t skimp on the handmade tortillas.

Tazza Kitchen

2931 S Glebe Rd., Arlington; (703) 549-8299

Imagine a Clyde’s, only foodier, cozier, more contemporary, and less focused on pleasing the widest swath of diners. Terrific, attentive service, too. Go for the campanelle bolognese, the mushroom pizza, the shrimp ’n’ grits, the steak with salsa verde and an egg, and end with an excellent olive oil-topped chocolate budino.

Hunan Taste

10120 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax; (703) 877-0988

The 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.

Amoo’s House of Kabob

6271 Old Dominion Dr., McLean; (703) 448-8500

The kabob is exalted at this Persian stripmall gem. Don’t miss the kubideh, which doesn’t even need a knife, and the salmon, thick hunks of lightly charred fish, cooked to an ideal coral-centered medium. And don’t come at all if you’re not going to spring for at least one of the rice dishes, ideally the aromatic shirin polo, with saffron, currants, and candied orange peel.

Sushi Capitol

325 Pennsylvania Ave. SE DC; (202) 627-0325

Minoru Ogawa was previously in charge of sushi operations at every Mandarin Oriental property along the Eastern seaboard. He shops with the utmost care for his product, and is a purist at the bar, abjuring gimmicks, fads and clutter. When Ogawa is around, there’s no place in the area I’d rather go for sushi.

Casa Luca

1099 New York Ave. NW DC; (202) 628-1099

The most casual of the restaurants in Fabio Trabocchi’s collection, 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.

Enat

4709 N Chambliss St., Alexandria; (703) 642-3628

Best Ethiopian food in the area right now. Every item I sampled on a recent, abundantly topped platter was vibrantly colorful, subtly (but assertively) spiced, and memorable. Vegetarians, take note: this is the spot to go when you’re in the mood for kik alicha, mesir wot, and azifa. The latter, in fact, is easily the best version of the dish I’ve eaten in years — the flavors sharper and more focused, the tang tangier, the mustard bite, more mustardy. It’s also a pleasure to see lentils that are cooked perfectly — no crunchiness, no mushiness.

The Alley Light

108 2nd St. SW, Charlottesville, Va.; (434) 296-5003

The chef at this unmarked speakeasy, Jose De Brito, is a lone wolf in the foodie herd. He thinks for himself, which would be reason enough to pay a visit, but here’s the best part: he doesn’t also cook for himself, to gratify his ego at the expense of your pleasure. Let every other chef fry their brussels sprouts; De Brito mashes them with a bacon-infused cream to create a kind of palaak paneer, then roasts them slowly, along with pearl onions, bits of bacon, and chestnuts that turn soft, dark, and caramelly sweet. He uses sunchokes, those suddenly trendy tubers, to lend a sharpening edge to a fondue-like soup that coats the tongue with the rich, resonant taste of Roquefort. I can’t remember the last time I saw green beans on a menu, let alone as a stand-alone dish, but De Brito shows you how something so unsexy can be made marvelous, tossing the beans in an almond vinaigrette and then showering the plate with a snow the color of putty — foie gras, grated from a frozen block. And that’s just the vegetables.

Le Diplomate

1601 14th St. NW DC; (202) 332-3333

You don’t need to be told, or reminded, about the place, but let me just say that the dishes coming out of the kitchen, under chef Michael Abt, have never been better. The tete de veau is excellent, worth coming for all by itself. It doesn’t go with the burger, but you can’t come here and not get the burger, probably the best in the city at the moment. And Fabrice Bendano, the dean of DC pastry chefs, has taken control of desserts — his profiterole is both new and old, stunning and satisfying.

KBQ Real Barbeque

9101 Woodmore Ctr. Dr. Ste 322, Lanham; (301) 322-1527

One of the two best barbecue spots in the area right now — the other is DCity Smokehouse — and I go back and forth on whose ribs I crave most. The ones here are soaked in advance of cooking in a housemade mojo criollo, then rubbed with herbs, and smoked slowly out back before hitting the grill. No sauce when they come to the table — they don’t need ‘em.

…………………………………………………


SERVER’S THUMB ON THE PLATE, CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK ………..:

Why is it a problem if the server touches the plate, but not the chef?

I sort of take it as a given that a bunch of people are going to touch my food before I eat it if I eat out. Keeps my immune system robust.

Todd Kliman

Why?

Because a lot of people are squeamish.

I think a lot of it also has to do with the fact that with a chef, you don’t see it; with a server, you do. It’s there right in front of you — he’s touching my plate of food.

I also wonder whether some of this reaction has to do with an ingrained cultural notion that for some people, no matter how unstratified a society we might be (not nearly as much as we think we are), the server, for some, is the help. Chefs used to be non-entities, too, though higher on the scale than servers, but nowadays they are exalted, hence, it doesn’t matter if Mr. Celeb Chef touches my plate with his thumb; in fact, I want him to! 🙂

…………………………..


REPORT FROM THE FIELD: IZAKAYA SEKI, DC ……….:

We had a fabulous meal at Izakaya Seki over the weekend. What a gem. We tried over a dozen dishes and not one miss.

Special stand outs were: Kara-age (fried chicken), Kushikatsu (pork belly on a skewer), spinach in a miso dressing, soba noodles in warm dashi, Chahan (fried rice with garlic chips, shiso leaf), and the most amazing piece of mackerel. It appeared to have been marinated and then broiled (?) with the skin on, regardless, by far the best piece of fish I have had in a long time. We thought about the meal for the rest of the weekend.

Todd Kliman

Yep, sounds about right.

I adore the place.

And you mentioned mackerel — the chef, the master, Hiroshi Seki, has a great eye for mackerel; if anybody out there is thinking, eh, not a fan of mackerel, get yourself over here and give it a try when he has it in on special.

I’m hungry now …

……………………….


BAHAMAS RECS? ……….:

We are taking the family to the Bahamas for spring break and are staying at the Atlantis. Hoping someone out there has restaurant recommendations outside of the hotel.

Thanks!

Todd Kliman

Oh someone out there —?

………………………………….

Don’t miss a new restaurant again. Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.


READING REVIEWS, READING MENUS ……….:

Hi Todd, I have a question about reading reviews.

I remember a few weeks ago a chatter mentioned they’d ordered something based on your review recommendation and you qualified that you hadn’t really ‘recommended’ it per se, just referenced it in the review to make a larger point.

I understand that reviews aren’t just a list of dishes to order – and they shouldn’t be! But I have always looked at specific dishes in reviews as implicit recommendations, something underscored by another part of that particular exchange where you emphasized that you had not included a certain dish in the review. I suppose my question is – if including a dish isn’t a reason to order it, and not including a dish is a reason not to order it, how should I be reading restaurant reviews, if one of my goals of reading them is deciding how to approach a menu at a new restaurant?

Thanks so much for this chat. I learn something new every Tuesday!

Todd Kliman

That’s great. Thank you.

And thank you for coming on every week.

It’s a really interesting question you ask …

I would say that most of the time I talk about a dish in a not-negative way that I’m recommending it. There are times, I think, that I talk about a dish in order to characterize the cooking, or convey what this chef is doing differently from other chefs — and in those instances, I’m not saying: get this. I’m saying something more like: isn’t this interesting, or look at this.

I want to think some more about what you’re saying, because I can see how some readers might not get or appreciate that. So, thank you for bringing it up.

I do think it has something to do with the kind of review I’m trying to write, which is different from a review I might write if I were writing once a week for a newspaper, say. That kind of review is, of necessity, more nuts and bolts — get this, don’t get this, etc. Because I’m coming out monthly, I think my reviews have to do what that kind of review generally doesn’t, and what the Yelpers and bloggers don’t do in their postings, which is to try to situate a place, explore its context, etc., and write with less conscious consideration of get this, don’t get that.

……………………………


NORTON FAN W/ A NORTON QUESTION ……….:

Hey Todd,

Wondered if you have tried the Norton at Casanel in Leesburg. It’s one of the best I’ve had. Nice forward fruit without being too jammy.

They also make a lighter bodied version they call Norton Rose (not Rose’). They serve it chilled and it would make a great summer wine (perfect for Wolftrap).

We last enjoyed a bottle with a fabulous dinner at Tuscarora Mill Restaurant where there is no corkage fee for local wines bought that day.

Todd Kliman

No, I haven’t tried it — or even heard of it.

Thanks so much for bringing these two to my attention. I’ll seek them out …

And you mentioned Tuscarora Mill’s local corkage policy — what a great idea to spur interest in local wine.

I hope this is something that other restaurants — in Virginia, especially, but in DC, too — will consider doing.

…………………………….


ROMANTIC DINNER THAT WON’T BREAK THE BANK? ……….:

Hey Todd,

I’m planning an anniversary dinner with my wife. I was thinking of going to Ananda, but a couple of recent comments on your chat have suggested it may have gone downhill over the past few months. I now am having second thoughts. Should I still go for it?

Or if not, do you have another recommendation on a quality romantic dinner that won’t break the bank?

Todd Kliman

How about Casa Luca? See the thumbnail review up top …

Ananda is an I-don’t-know; I haven’t been back since my review. Some of those reports we’d gotten on here were, if they were to be trusted, a little concerning, yes. But, for whatever it’s worth, a friend of mine who had gone five times within about two months after I told him about it, returned recently and said the cooking was good to very good.

Do I trust him? I do. But I wasn’t there, myself, so until then I’m going to withhold judgment on where the place is at the moment.

………………………..


THUMB ON THE PLATE, CONT. ……….:

Wait, are people really pushing their food to the very edge of the plate in the process of putting it on a fork? I can’t say I see an issue with a server touching the edge of a plate — in fact, I’m not even sure how one would be able top lift a plate from a tray without touching the top of it at least minimally in some way.

Now, if we’re talking about a server lifting a glass by the rim, that’s another story. But even then, eh, just not huge to me. I actually live in and walk around a city, and do crazy things like touch doorknobs. And I take immuno-suppresants for some chronic conditions! If we were really as fragile as some people seem to think, we as a species would not have made it this far.

Todd Kliman

Ha.

I hear you.

To be fair, though — in the industry it’s not considered “good service” when the server has his or her thumb jutting out over the rim of the plate, and touching that rim, just before setting the plate down in front of the diner.

Just as it’s not considered “good service” when you, the diner, see the back of the server’s arm.

A precise and demanding GM would not tolerate it.

It’s the kind of thing that Michelin inspectors and, ahem, (some) food critics look at. How well-drilled is the staff? Well, you can glean these things from the details. And this is one of those details.

It’s a lesser deal at a neighborhood spot, obviously, but I’ll tell you what — at the really well-run places, no matter what the level, you don’t tend to see thumbs on the rims of plates.

…………………………….


POSTCARD FROM MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA ……….:

Hi Todd,

I mentioned a business trip to Melbourne a few weeks ago, but I’ve been unable to give you a quick recap until now. I spent most of my time in the central business district, and never ventured out to discover the food scene in the suburbs.

Melbourne is fairly expensive, even with the improved exchange rate, but I found restaurant prices to be comparable to those in DC. (Their minimum wage is roughly $14 USD)

Highlights included Supernormal, Andrew McConnell’s asian restaurant and bar, where I had an incredible slow-cooked Szechuan lamb dish, served with scallion pancakes and a coriander paste. Easily one of the best dishes I’ve had all year.

Movida, a Spanish bar, serves outstanding tapas and raciones (portions), albeit at fairly high prices. Each bite was delicious, but cost between $4-6 each. Service at the bar was great, and I enjoyed a unique orange wine in the form of a New Zealand gewürztraminer. Melbourne is also quite a coffee town, and I drank my weight in flat whites. Interestingly, I noticed only one Starbucks. They undoubtedly had some great “regular” coffee, too. 😉

To keep this brief, I’ll add that I left just as a two-week food and wine festival was starting. (Bad timing, I know). One of the many kick-off events was a wine tasting with an interesting entry procedure. In order to gain access, one simply had to buy a $15 AUS tasting plate at one of 10 restaurants directly in the vicinity. At least 10 wineries were represented, so it was an exercise in self control.

The locals were warm and welcoming everywhere, and the DC transit folks could take a lesson from their well-developed tram system, which one can ride free of charge within the CBD.

And one more rec: Tipo 00, an tiny Italian place serving up incredible homemade pasta and other Italian dishes, accompanied by a great wine selection. Their spanner crab pasta was light, delicate, and spicy all at once. Perfection.

Todd Kliman

I’m still thinking about that $14 minimum wage.

How humane.

Imagine that here. Imagine how that would transform the society.

Actually, I can’t imagine it, because I know it will never happen …

And free transit!

(Sighhhhhhh)

Speaking of envy, I think I can speak for everyone, I think, in saying that we’re all madly jealous about your adventures in eating and drinking in the land down under.

I’ll bet getting on the plane to go home was tough! …

……………………………


KUBIDEH JOURNEY ……….:

Kubideh Journey:

Past two weeks been going around and visiting the various persian restaurants in the Northern VA area. The reason for the kubideh journey, is started at a new consulting firm and have many new co-workers who are Persian. Of course this led to a spirited debate on who had the best kubideh in the area.

My wife and I Started off at Rose Kabob and found their kubideh on our recent visit to be a little dry. The joojeh (cornish hen) was still good. My wife and I then went to Amoos in Mclean and found the kubideh to be moist and juicy. I agree with Todd that the rice was really good too. Now one of my Persian friends took issue with the kubideh at Amoos because as he stated it was too thick and it reminded him more of an Afghani Shami kabob. I did not think it was too thick. The reason for this debate is because at my previous job, co-workers and I would go on a frequent basis to Amoos for lunch. We had been going for a good six months.

We then tried Alborz, which opened about a year ago in Tysons Corner. I was not impressed with their cornish hen. Found it to be lacking in flavor. It could have used more marination time.

We completed our journey at Shamshiry last Friday night. Now every Persian that I talked to at work and Persian friends outside of work that I grew up with, speak with great pride about the quality of the kubideh at Shamshiry. Now Shamshiry has been a DMV institution, since it opened in the 80’s. I used to go on a frequent basis when I was growing up, whether it was with my family or with my friends. A few years ago I had less than memorable kubideh and started to dine more at Rose, mostly because of convenience to where I lieved. After hearing all my new co-workers speak in such high fashion about Shamshiry, I thought it is time to visit the shrine one more time. My wife and I had such a great kubideh at Shamshiry. The kubideh was juicy, moist, did not need a knife to cut through, was not too thick and that rice, oh man! The fragrant aroma from the rice, just transported me back to my childhood. I was telling my wife, this is the food of my childhood. This is the Persian food I remember.

I am glad you came across Amoos but I still think Shamshiry, especially after this recent visit is still king of the Kubideh, but Amoos has been added to my rotation.

Naeem

Todd Kliman

Oh, Shamshiry’s kubideh is great.

I think the kubideh at Amoo’s is great, too.

I’m not declaring a champ. There are enough kubideh kudos to go around.

……………………………


REPORT FROM THE FIELD: THAI TASTE BY KOB, IN WHEATON ……….:

I’d like to report on a terrific experience at Thai Taste by Kob.

We ordered the pork skewers, chicken spring rolls, appetizer sampler, noodles with pork and fish balls, penang shrimp curry, and pad thai. Every single dish was a winner, but my favorite was probably the noodles with pork and fish balls, which was really a party. One of my companions said the coconut shrimp in the app sampler were the best she’d ever had. The pork skewers were also fantastic, with the citrusy sauce perfectly balancing the meat.

With beers and a ridiculous amount of food for four people, after tip the meal was less than $100. And the staff were charming. A couple of months ago I went to Soi 38, and, for much less money, Thai Taste blew it away.

Another big plus: they take reservations, which is often not done at local ethnic places like this.

Todd Kliman

I mean, when it’s on, it’s the best Thai cooking in the area.

Exciting, memorable cooking — cooking that has you ordering more dishes than you need, or eating well past the point of full, just because you can’t get enough of the bright, pinging, clearly defined flavors.

I’m glad it was such a good meal.

I worry a little about small places like this after the bright light of media attention has been shone on them. I think the bigger places, the places with more resources, tend to do a better job of handling the crush, the expectations, etc.

……………………….


TK’s 10 ……….:

Todd,

I just wanted to tell you, I love the reviews this week. Such an interesting mix of styles, cuisines, locales, price levels. THANK YOU!

I want to say also that I really appreciate how much thought you seem to give to all kinds of people who go out to eat and not just the fancy people or the trendy people.

I can’t wait to hit some of these in the coming weeks.

Todd Kliman

You made my day, week, and month — THANK YOU!

Your words mean a lot.

I always have in mind when I write the diner I was before I lucked into this, who had to save up for what in the city is now regarded as a “moderately priced” meal, who loved to drive an hour or so in search of something interesting, who loved eating at all levels.

There are a lot of people out there who love food. Some of them are self-described foodies, and some are not. Some have money and some do not. Some live in the center of things and some live out on the margins. Some are up on all the latest trends, and some could not care less. The food world can get very insular, and very focused, maybe over-focused, on certain things. It’s a wide, wide world out there.

…………………….


BARBECUE, CONT. ……….:

Tried KBQ since its not too far from Fort Meade. Tried Hill bros twice its okay. So far best Q in 200 mile radius is Bacon’s In Manassas.

Todd Kliman

When was the last time you went?

Because Bacon’s BBQ is closed.

And so, now, are we …

Thanks, everyone, for joining in today, and for those of you celebrating soon, I hope you have a happy and delicious Passover and a happy and delicious Easter.

Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …

[missing you, TEK … ]