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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Long time reader first time question. I’m getting into organics more and am looking for an exclusively organic spot to take my wife.
Also what are your predictiona for a Wizards playoff run?
The only all-organic restaurant I know of in the city is Nora.
it was also the first all-organic restaurant in the city, going back, oh, three plus decades now. Pretty amazing.
Nora Pouillon was ahead of her time, clearly, but also helped to direct the time to come.
The chef, incidentally, has a memoir coming out next week, from Knopf — My Organic Life: How a Pioneering Chef Helped Shape the Way We Eat Today
Liza Mundy reviewed it for The Washingtonian, here: https://www.washingtonian.com/blogs/capitalcomment/books/nora-pouillons-memoir-reminds-us-how-rotten-dc-food-used-to-be.php
As for the Wizards … oh, my Wizards, my Wizards …
I love ‘em, as all of you know; it’s the team I bleed for. But there’s a part of me — I hate to say this, because it’s just a part — that hopes they don’t have a playoff run, because the team as presently constituted doesn’t have the foundation that a young, upcoming team ought to have.
What’s needed, badly, is a new GM (and to a lesser extent, a new coach, a coach who understands not just defense, but also how offense works in this decade). This team is old, beyond Wall and Beal and Porter, and the latter two are not yet cornerstones; Beal regressed this year, and Porter needs a lot more weight (and a coach who can maximize his cutting and passing and decision-making).
Problem is, would a first-round exit be enough to push Grunfeld and Wittman out the door? I would hope so, but Leonsis has shown more patience at this point than he should.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: BUL, IN ADAMS MORGAN ……….:
Have you tried BUL, the newish Korean joint on 18th St. NW in AdMo?
We went recently and had a mixed experience.
To start we ordered the kimchi trio, the tofu and roasted kimchi, and the crispy squid legs. The $3 kimchi “sampler” was fine, just small tasters — only one what you traditionally think of as kimchi.
I missed the typical banchan, which are often complimentary, I might add. The soft tofu with kimchi was comforting and delicious, and I really enjoyed the sesame(?) sauce drizzled over top.
The squid was a total miss, but it’s the way the kitchen responded that really bothered me. My husband and I both found the squid to be incredibly chewy (think hard pencil erasers) and unpleasant. We asked the waitress if it was “supposed to be that way,” and she said it was their most popular dish, maybe something had gone wrong, and whisked it away to be remade.
30 seconds later she was back at our table with the old plate of squid, saying the kitchen said it was OK. I said, “Well, it was really tough and seemed overcooked,” and she responded, “I’m sorry about that” and ran away, leaving the dish on our table. It was incredibly awkward. Next time she approached us, I handed her the plate and said firmly, “We don’t like this and won’t be eating it; please take it back.” She did.
The mains were served. The pork belly ssam was extremely underseasoned. My husband remarked that it didn’t taste like very much, and we had to flag down the waitress to bring some gochujang (pepper paste), which had been forgotten. I also asked for salt, which made it palatable but definitely not as delicious as you’d expect for a pork belly dish. Definitely would not reorder. (I’ve made better at home using David Chang’s brined-then-grilled recipe for pork belly ssam.)
The seafood pajeon (pancake) by contrast was very good. It was crisp and not overly greasy. I wish there had been more of the vinegary dipping sauce.
When the bill came, I saw we were still charged for the rubbery squid. We felt it wasn’t worth the argument, especially after the rude initial response from the kitchen, and just handed over our credit card.
To her credit, our waitress did let us know she removed later the item when she brought our credit slip for signature. I appreciated that, but overall, I am not rushing to return. If a customer sends back your “most popular, signature” dish because it’s chewy and not tasty, as a chef, you shouldn’t just immediately send it back to their table saying it’s properly cooked. It was clear no one even tasted what we returned to see what was wrong. A much more gracious response would have been to just say, “The chef said it was properly cooked, but he is sorry you did not enjoy it, and we’ll take it off your bill.” It was only $7 to begin with.
The arrogant reaction cost them more overall. I just think there are better and more hospitable restaurants out there worth my time and money.
I’m just curious — how much was your dinner for two there?
What a disappointing night, even before the squid thing. That’s too bad.
And it’s telling that even though the charge was removed from the bill at the end, it didn’t matter, because you were made to feel as if you were ignorant and grubby — and that’s the thing that stayed with you, that’s the impression that the place left you with.
One thing. Sometimes it just comes down to one thing.
This makes me appreciate the restaurants that go through this kind of thing every single day, many, many times a day, and do it with such grace and ease that you’re never made aware that there’s a problem in the room — because the great operations know: there are no problems, only temporary setbacks, easily troubleshot.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: OLD EBBITT GRILL, DOWNTOWN ……….:
Last week the bartender at the Corner Bar in Old Ebbitt poured me a second glass of Chardonnay, which I had not requested. I thought it was a comp, thanked her, and drank it.
On my own, I would not have ordered a second drink and most definitely not a second glass of the Hess chard, which wasn’t that great to begin with. I was surprised when the bill came and she charged me for what I hadn’t ordered.
I’m not a fan of this practice (has happened once or twice before elsewhere). As a former bartender, I would never pour a drink that hadn’t been actively ordered and then charge the recipient. Just seems poor taste.
I know Old Ebbitt has its fans, but I’m not one of them (even the happy hour shrimp cocktail seems kinda overrated). Meh. Won’t be back.
This isn’t poor taste. It’s bad practice.
I see it quite a bit.
Even with, yes, water.
More and more restaurants these days are filtering their own, and so it’s not uncommon to be offered a choice of sparkling or flat when you sit down. In fact, at a certain level, that’s now the expectation — house-filtered flat or house-made sparkling.
To then be brought a bottle of Pellegrino or Badoit, as I have in recent months, is the sort of low cunning a good restaurant ought to be above.
Just be upfront about it; say, may I interest you in a bottle of sparkling water — we have Pellegrino, we have …
It suggests to me that the restaurant is desperate.
Or desperate and presumptuous.
Sure, you just added $7, $8 to the tab. Clever. Bravo.
That might not cause an eyebrow to twitch among the swells, no — a bartender recently told me that a guy and his buds came in a few weeks ago, sat down, ordered the four-course tasting menu, and a couple bottles of wine, and walked out an hour and fifteen minutes later having spent $1200 — but for regular folks like, presumably, you and me, this kind of stealth charge can cause us to think twice about ever returning.
ORGANICS, CONT. ……….:
I know Nora has gone to great lengths to obtain organic certification.
Another option might be Coppi’s Organic in Cleveland Park. They claim local organic produce, sustainable fish, and grass fed/free range meats. Although I don’t think they have gone through all the certification that Nora has done.
Guess it depends how “exclusively organic” the above chatter wants.
Ah! — so glad you chimed in with this, I had forgotten about Coppi’s.
I’m glad to know it’s back in the game again, after an almost two year absence.
That’s a long, long time in this industry. A long, long time to be away from your supporters.
And in a new neighborhood, to boot.
I wish them well.
It’s interesting to think about restaurants that have returned to the scene after a protracted absence. The other one that comes to mind is KBQ, which was gone 18 months; it’s now in Glenarden — used to be in Bowie.
What others are there? Or have there been?
VOLT AND THE 2015 100 BEST RESTAURANTS LIST ……….:
I just noticed that Volt is not on the 2015 Best Restaurants list. Is this because it is outside the region or the quality has slipped?
Was thinking about heading there for a special dinner, but want to be sure before dropping all that money.
It was missing from the 2014 100 Best list as well.
And I can tell you, we, on the staff, have been as perplexed as many readers by its failure to earn a spot in our ranking.
A COUPLE OF SHOUTOUTS TO RESTAURANT STAFF ……….:
Just a quick shout out to Rebecca a server at Rasika West End.
The wife and I went there for dinner two weeks ago and our server Rebecca knew the menu inside out. She provided great suggestions, such as ordering the Dum Ka Lobster, which is cooked inside a vessel, sealed by dough and cooked in an oven. Similar to how traditional biryani is cooked. I love it when a server is on top of their game and can make insightful suggestions on what to order, whether it is your first visit to that particular restaurant or your tenth.
Second shout out to Saied Azali, Chef Cedric Maupillier, and their entire staff at Mintwood Place. The wife and I have become frequent visitors for brunch and on each of our visits, the entire meal ranging from food to service has been stellar. I am looking forward to the launch of Saied and Cedric’s new restaurant Convivial in the Shaw district.
Thanks for these.
Especially to giving some great attention to Rebecca at Rasika West End — not that Saied Azali and Cedric Maupillier are potted plants (anyone remember lawyer Brendan Sullivan and the Oliver North fiasco?), just that it’s much more common for light to be shone on a chef or owner. I love seeing a waiter or waitress recognized for elevating the dining experience. The great ones can do that.
And yes, like you, I really appreciate a server who knows the menu inside and out and can make suggestions that don’t come across as the set speech of someone who has been trained to push product. Passion and enthusiasm are wonderful things to see — and, as most restaurateurs know all to well, almost impossible to instill. Sincerity is another enormously appealing attribute, and also, I would think, innate.
I have enormous respect and admiration for the men and women who have all three, and who make our meals memorable.
THE RISE OF THAI, THE MAKING OF A CHEF, AND KD2DC ……….:
What do you attribute the rise of Thai cuisine in our area? Recently, the Old Siam became Nana Thai, do you think restaurateurs are trying to capitalize on a trend?
Also what are your thoughts on qualities that make someone a chef? Do you believe formal training and/or apprenticeship is required before some is called a chef or is anyone willing to cook considered a chef?
And do you believe Wizards can sign Kevin Durant when he becomes a free agent?
Some interesting, complicated questions there. I’ll do my best to answer them in the time I’ve got …
Let’s start with the question about Thai restaurants. I think a lot of this has to do with the massive attention that Little Serow has gotten — national accolades and write-ups, nightly long lines.
I think that two things have happened. One is that big-time restaurateurs have taken note — Doi Moi would not have existed without, first, a Little Serow. The new Mango Tree, in City Center, might not have come to DC had there been no Little Serow. The mom ‘n’ pops are paying attention, too, and with a mixture of astonishment and envy. So, Tsunami on 14th gives birth to Baan Thai, Old Siam converts to Nana Thai in order to present more regional-specific cooking, etc., etc.
One of the good things about all this (like any trend, there are good and bad things) is that we are seeing more regional specificity, in the same way that fifteen, twenty years ago people began to learn that there wasn’t just northern Italian and southern Italian food but food from Piedmont, food from Venice, etc.
Your second question, about what makes a good chef, is also an interesting one. Let me start with the question of apprenticeship. I think any chef would tell you that there HAS to be an apprenticeship of some kind, whether that cook goes to culinary school or begins as a lowly grunt in the kitchen at a restaurant.
It’s like anything else. You can’t get good at something without learning the ins and outs, the theory, the skills. And doing it day after day after day until you not only become better at these things, but also until you become appreciative of the people who have gone before you, of the craft, of the idea that you are now part of a continuum.
What makes a good chef? I won’t touch on the business aspect — I know that it’s important, just as organizational abilities and leadership abilities matter greatly. But if you don’t love to cook, I mean, really, really love to cook, none of that really matters, does it?
I love to see someone with that kind of passion for his or her trade. Also someone who reads widely and travels widely and is a seeker — someone determined to find his or her own way. A style on the plate that is like no one else. Combinations that no one else thinks to use. Not to be novel or merely to dazzle, but to express something, so that the dish is more than just an assembly of ingredients on the plate, however delicious those ingredients might be.
That, to me, is deeply exciting.
As for KD, well, I had higher hopes in the first third of the season, when Oklahoma City was struggling and the Wizards looked strong. Now, I’m dubious. OKC made some excellent deadline deals, and their roster is very, very deep right now, while the Wizards have revealed themselves to be a team with one young talent and a couple that might develop and not much of a foundation beyond that. I think they need to become a better, younger, deeper team, a team that KD can come to as the missing piece.
The wildcard is Russell Westbrook, who has taken his game to an Oscar Robertson-like level this season. I think that ultimately he and KD are not compatible, and I think that Westbrook’s emergence as The Man is not going to be good for KD in the future. So there’s that.
MIAMI EATS ……….:
I m headed to Miami at the end of the month and wanted your take on where I should eat in South Beach and Biscayne Bay. Seafood, sushi, Cuban, brunch, etc…anything delicious please.
Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, in the Design District, is the one not to miss.
Also good: Pubbelly and Pubbelly Sushi.
The city is rife with Cuban places, but it also has some of the best Peruvian restaurants in the country. I like: CVI.CHE 105 and Sabor a Peru (and Francesco, in Coral Gables).
For Cuban: Villa Habana (full service) and Tinto y Cafe (coffee and sandwiches)
I hope you’ll come back on and give us a full report of your adventures …
BETHESDA RECS FOR A COUPLE OF COUPLES? ……….:
We are looking for a restaurant in the bethesda area (middle ground for both couples) and have already tried Black’s and Food, Wine and Co. but didn’t know if you had any other recommendations.
Had looked at Olazzo but haven’t seen any recent reviews.
Just looking for great food and a comfortable atmosphere.
How about Jaleo, for tapas and cocktails (love the Andresean spin on a gin and tonic) and Spanish wines?
Or, for something more casual and comfort-y, Woodmont Grill?
COPPI’S ORGANIC, CONT. ……….:
Just wanted to second the suggestion of Coppi’s.
Went to the new(ish) location a few weeks back and had an excellent meal – fresh pasta with a delicious spicy ragu.
They were strangely understaffed (and that led to delays), but everyone was very apologetic, friendly, and welcoming.
On a related note, despite the shutterings, it seems like the remaining businesses in Cleveland Park are doing quite well – they are often crowded on weekends. I hope that others will see this and bring in more high-quality places to the area!
Cleveland Park will be fine.
Cleveland Park is fine.
(I can’t believe I’m even typing those sentences … )
I’m glad to hear that about Coppi’s, the delays notwithstanding. Of course, apologetic and friendly and welcoming go a long way toward easing diners’ tensions. Good for them.
I always think of the nutella calzones at the old Coppi’s. Which I know is on the revived menu, as well.
Speaking of … if Marc Vetri does bring his Pizzeria Vetri from Philly to DC, then I hope he’ll bring with him his nutella pizza, which is spectacular.
I’m trying to reconstruct its making. I may have some things slightly wrong, but this is the essence …
The pizzaiolo slices a pizza round, fresh and hot from the wood-burning oven, in two, lengthwise — so, a top and a bottom. The bottom is spread thickly with nutella and topped with halved marshmallows and then returned to the heat with the paddle. A minute later or so it’s removed, and the top is placed back on. The covered pie now goes back in again, to cook and become gooey and wonderful. Then, back out, spanked with powdered sugar, and served.
God, I want one now …
WIZARDS, CONT. ………..:
Wizards, sorry will always be the Bullets. Remember the late 70’s Wes, the Big E, Gus, Phil, Cupcake et al. Wes full court passes!
You do know the ucrse of “les Boulez” is real Big E’s aunt put the ucrse on the Bullets decades ago. Ted may want to meet with her since she is still alvie in her 90’s so she can take the curse off!
I’d never heard that story. Huh.
So we have our own billy goat myth, our own selling of Babe Ruth myth. I’ll look into it …
And yes, they’ll always be the Bullets to me — and to most of the longtime fans I know …
Gotta run, everyone. Thanks for all the questions and comments and reviews today, and thanks for putting up with delays on this end. I really appreciate your patience and steadfastness.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]