Tuesday, April 21st, at 11 AM

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. The Richmond TImes-Dispatch hailed it as “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

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TK’S 10: WHERE TO GO NOW

Taqueria el Mexicano

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

Best Mexican cooking in the area right now. Nothing else comes close. Get the pork in adobo, the mole poblano, the posole, and the sopes. 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 something 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 you simply can’t stop eating.

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, and an immensely assured operation from top to bottom, and from its opening nibbles to its pastas to its dazzling preparations of fish and seafood to its 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, no, 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 over dessert. If you want to understand why this qualifies as such a monumental hire, order his profiterole, which manages to be both new and old, intricate and effortless, richly satisfying and conversation haltingly dazzling.

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.


TRICKS WITH WATER ……….:

Todd,

Last week you mentioned your experience of being offered sparkling or still water and then being sold bottled water. Would be able to share where this happened with your readers? I ask mainly because I experienced this at DBGB when it first opened and am wondering whether my experience was just a one off due to the restaurant being new, or if this is the restaurant’s practice.

On my first visit to the restaurant, the waiter offered my boyfriend and I a choice of “sparkling, bottled, or still water.” Both of us heard the phrasing that way and agree that “tap water” was not mentioned as an option. We ended up ordering “still water” which was brought out to us in a glass bottle WITHOUT a label which we took to mean that the restaurant filtered its own water and used reusable glass bottles that one can by at Crate and Barrel or a restaurant supply store. We didn’t realize what had happened until we got our check and when we brought it up to the waiter, he told us we drank bottled water and had to pay up. The restaurant was busy and it was late so we ended up just paying so we can get home.

The day after, the more I thought about the water incident the angrier I got. I called the restaurant hoping for a clarification or apology but the manager I spoke to insisted that waiters are trained to offer “sparking, bottled still, or tap” water so we must have misheard our waiter. She explained, condescendingly, that the brand of water is a fancy European brand doesn’t have a label. Further, she insisted it was our fault because there were runners walking around refilling water glasses from metal pitchers and we should have noticed that and figured out we were drinking bottled water. After I insisted (probably too much) that my boyfriend and I were misled by our waiter, the manager, in exasperation, offered to refund us the $7 but told me that it was a busy restaurant and she had lots of things to do and the refund would take several days.

I ended up passing on the offer. A dinner at DBGB is not inexpensive and my boyfriend and I each ordered three courses and drinks so the $7 was not that big of a deal. The big deal is that we felt we were tricked out of our money and it was frustrating that the manager didn’t realize the issue was the switcheroo and not the money. My boyfriend and I are fortunate to have jobs that allow us to eat out regularly. We are well compensated and in the end we didn’t need the $7, but neither does a restaurant like DBGB.

Despite that, I would also note, that $7 plus tax and tip is close to $10. If this happened to me once a week, I would be out $40 a month, the cost of a night out at a medium priced restaurant.

Todd Kliman

Thanks for the report.

I don’t like hearing this. But I also don’t like experiencing it myself. And I have, a lot.

The restaurant can say that you obviously misheard. But the problem is built into the pitch. By design, I would argue.

“Sparkling, still or tap?” — the first two are products for sale, the third is not and is offered for free.

In writing, we call that a parallelism problem.

The clearer, more explicit way of presenting it would be for the server to say something to the effect of — “We offer bottled water for your enjoyment, with two options for your choosing. If you don’t care for either, there’s also tap water, which is, of course, on the house.”

Why don’t restaurants do this?

I think for the same reason that DC doesn’t word its parking signs clearly or explicitly.

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MARC VETRI ……….:

I too would love to see a venture from Marc Vetri in DC. I still need to get up to his flagship restaurant for the wonderful pasta.

Do you think he produces the best pasta in the nation/east coast? Or who would be your top pasta makers in the US?

Todd Kliman

I think Vetri’s at the top.

For one thing, how many chefs do you know who make their own rigatoni? Rigatoni!

Rigatoni with chicken liver ragu and cippolini onions, one of the signature dishes at Osteria, is one of those plates that you just can’t stop thinking about after you’ve had it. And before you tried it, it was almost impossible not to be skeptical about it.

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It’s surprising to me how many restaurants in this day and age don’t make their pastas. I understand the reasons why. But what about the glories of from-scratch, of house-made, of artisanal everything?

I was actually shocked — yes, shocked — to learn, when I dined not long ago at The Grill Room at Capella, that a pasta Bolognese from Frank Ruta was made with noodles that he himself hadn’t made.

This, according to the waiter I asked. And I asked because my tastebuds told me that it could not possibly have been rolled fresh.

Never would have happened at Palena.

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LOCAL DESTINATIONS TO TRY FOR DINNER? ……….:

Thanks for the clarification last week on Volt. Any other “local destinations” to try for a special dinner?

Just looking to get out of the city for the day and enjoy a nice meal.

Todd Kliman

Well, you could head on out to Annapolis to Vin 909 Winecafe, which isn’t quite the wine bar its name suggests. The cooking shows real care, as well as creativity, and the pizzas are the best I’ve had in the area for two, three years running.

It’s also a great, lively, warm space to pass the time — once you get in. I’d encourage you to show up twenty minutes before they open, or else be prepared to stand in line for forty-five minutes to an hour.

It’s a wildly popular place, and that’s because it’s so good and consistent and likable at every level.

If you’re willing to venture further afield, how about a trip down to Charlottesville? See my quickie review, above, of Alley Light, which I give a longer treatment to in the magazine in the next issue. I adore this place.

It’s one thing to have a neat look — to craft a space that everyone wants to hang out in for hours. And the Alley Light has definitely done that — the place is a retreat, a low-lit haven for eating and drinking. But what makes it special is the cooking. Cooking as a form of communication, of passionate communication.

About a decade ago, Jose De Brito, the chef, operated a cheese shop in Charlottesville, Ciboulette. I loved this place. It wasn’t for everybody. It wasn’t even for most people. To say he was opinionated is a gross understatement. He ranted and raved on the index cards he propped against his cheeses, telling people what they should enjoy, telling them how to eat his cheeses, telling them why their cheeses, American cheeses — he’s French — are rather less-than, etc., etc. I took to calling these “The Cheese Manifestos.”

Naturally De Brito garnered a reputation as arrogant, as snooty. The only arrogance I sense at Alley Light, though, is on behalf of the tradition he works in, the culinary culture that shaped him. Look at the remarkable products my country has given us, he seems to be saying. Look at the fantastic things I can do by honoring them and understanding them, manipulating them as simply as possible with the time-honored techniques I have learned. Most chefs are determined to make it new. When they err, they err on the side of novelty and cleverness. De Brito valorizes the past, but not because it’s the past. He valorizes it because these are the combinations that are always delicious, always rewarding.

It’s a special place. I can’t wait to go back.

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CHAT LOGISTICS ……….:

Why is the Washingtonian website making it so hard to locate your weekly chat? There used to be a notification on the front page of the site every Tuesday.

If I go to the Kliman online link, clicking on “Happening Now” takes me to the February 4 chat, and often the current chat has no link at all.

This is really frustrating, time-consuming, and a disservice to your work.

Todd Kliman

Thanks for the feedback. You’re not the only one, believe me, who’s frustrated. 😉

The folks on the new web team at the mag tell me they’re working on a new homepage design that will display the chat and other new stories automatically.

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DELAWARE BEACH EATS ……….:

Heading out for a week on the Delaware shore. What are your favorite spots in the area?

Todd Kliman

I have a number of them — and actually was just out there a few weeks ago during spring break.

Most of the best stuff is in Rehoboth.

You’ve got (a)muse, which is not what the name might lead you to think. It’s not pretentious or cutesy. It has a very clear sense of what it is, and the chef, Hari Cameron, is a smart, focused, and creative talent. This is the best restaurant at the beach, and would probably be a Top 30 restaurant if it were to be airlifted and plopped down into some DC neighborhood today.

Nage, where Cameron used to cook, is also really good. One of the best burgers around (it’s made with prime rib), a great kale Caesar, and a special of Littleneck Clams a few weeks ago, in a wonderful broth full of depth and also balance, was the best thing I ate in my three days at the beach. This is also a place to keep in mind for lunch.

Casapulla’s South has great hoagies.

I love Henlopen City Oyster House for the oysters on the half shell, the oyster chowder, and pints on draft.

In Lewes, Nectar is surprisingly good — go for breakfast or lunch. Good omelets, sandwiches, soups and salads, and smoothies.

Hope that gives you a week of great eating. Drop me a note when you’re back and let us know how your week went.

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WATER, CONT. ……….:

Is tap water considered gauche at fancier restaurants?

My wife likes to take me to the nicer places in town as gifts (Komi, minibar before they moved, etc.) and I never have the inclination to order anything other than tap, as I’d prefer spending money on booze only when it comes to drinks; I don’t need a fancy labeled water to complement my meal. Plus I tend to gulp water and would need several bottles for the meal, which would definitely add up.

Now, I’ve been to Europe many times and you pretty much always need to purchase bottled water, which I get. And I’ve found at some of the more touristy spots in places like Italy and Spain you’re best off ordering “agua con gas” to ensure the bottle was freshly opened for you. When I was younger I didn’t like the taste so my sisters and I would get “agua sin gas” and occasionally it would come out filled to the brim, way more so than if it had been filled at the factory and certainly tasted like unfiltered tap. It’s the fizzy stuff always now.

So do people order bottled water in restaurants here because it’s a status symbol thing? I love when places have house filtered sparkling water (Rogue 24 and Graffiato come to mind) — I’ll always order that.

Todd Kliman

Restaurant Eve, too.

In fact, Cathal Armstrong was, if I’m not mistaken, the first chef in the area to push for this, and he brought a lot of his colleagues along with him in his project.

I don’t think your question, which is a good one, has a single answer.

For some, my guess would be — yes, probably. A lot of decisions in this city are made because of how they look to other people, and the world of food is no different. It’s odd, ridiculous even, but yes, a bottle of water on the tap says chic.

It’s more complicated than that, though, because, for one thing, DC tap water is terrible tasting — some of the worst in the country.

Yes, I hear you: why waste money on water when you can spend it on booze or wine? But if you’re dining for a while, you’re going to need something other than booze or wine, and do you really want to chase a chef’s delicately wrought flavors with DC tap? I don’t.

There’s another consideration, and that’s that some people don’t drink beer or wine or booze. In that case, sparkling water, if they like it, is a great alternative because it’s bracing and crisp enough to refresh the palate between courses or between bites.

So, I don’t think it’s just trendiness.

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FAVORITE ETHNIC SPOTS IN NOVA? ……….:

What are some of your favorite ethnic restaurants right now in northern VA, and what are the “must order” items?

Todd Kliman

Wow, long list there — northern Virginia is an ethnic food paradise — but to get you started …

La Caraqueña: arepas (I like them griddled rather than fried) and peanut soup.

Cosmopolitan Grill: the Bosnian burger (secret to its juiciness? marination in onion juice).

Bangkok Golden: crispy rice salad.

Hunan Taste: fish filet with bean curd sauce.

Hong Kong Palace: ma po tofu and cumin lamb.

Kogiya: pork belly bbq, mandu, seafood pancake.

Mala Tang: hot pots, dumplings.

Huong Viet: banh xeo; bun with grilled pork.

Enat: veggie sampler, yebeg wot.

Amoo’s: salmon kabob; shirin polo.

Rus Uz: borscht; manti.

Ravi Kabob: bone-in chicken kabob, chana masala.

Duck Chang’s: Szechuan-style duck.

Rice Paper: caramel pork ribs; stuffed grape leaves with rice paper.

And that’s just off the top of my head. The list is, as I said, LONG. But that should keep you going for a while … 🙂

Go and eat and report back, please …

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REPORT FROM THE FIELD: LE DIPLOMATE, ON 14TH ST. ……….:

Hi,

I wanted to sing Le Diplomate’s praises. My family and I went to Le Diplomate twice last weekend (Saturday and Sunday).

Our server on Saturday, Kevin, was amazing. He made my non-english speaking parents feel comfortable. Hit that perfect balance between being attentive without hovering. The food was amazing. We walked away incredibly pleased with the restaurant.

My sister and I returned on Sunday and it was a bit different. The server, Amanda, wasn’t as smooth. We later found out she was a newbie. There was an upsell going on. She never mentioned a tap water choice. She pushed hard for the pastry basket. But she was pleasant and attentive. However the food this time around was very very salty. I fall into the mistake of saying an automatic fine when anyone asks, “how is everything?” My sister, luckily, does not. Mattias (i’m sure i’m spelling his name wrong), a manager came by and she mentioned that the food was very salty. We weren’t looking for anything but wanted to let management know. He promptly comped the two saltiest dishes, offered new ones (which we refused) and gave us a complimentary dessert.

My sister who was visiting from New York was extremely impressed. After this experience, I’m taking every out of time visitor to Le Diplomate. I wanted people to know that the service is amazing but I also don’t want people to expect comped dishes every time someone complains. I made sure that the comped dish price went directly to tip our server (although I wish I could’ve have given some of it to our previous server).

The gist: Le Diplomate has created a long term faithful customer who can’t wait to go there again. Thank you.

Todd Kliman

Thanks for the report.

It says something, I think, when your second visit is not nearly as good, and yet you still want to go back.

Good for Le Dip.

I also want to thank you for singling out your server. It’s important to spread the credit. So, good job, Kevin.

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WATER, CONT. ……….:

Water! I can explain the Europeans and their love of bottled water very easily. Its the minerals.

A lot of the specialty waters have lots of minerals in them like calcium and magnesium. Europeans don’t routinely drink milk after childhood, despite all the luscious cheeses and other dairy based products that are available that have calcium the like to get their calcium from fancy waters. Less calories this way.

And the other is digestion. With bottled waters you get the magnesium in the water and thus you digest your meal very quickly and efficiently. Just one caveat, too much magnesium and you go home and think lord, I got food poisoning from that restaurant, when the reality is it was the two bottles of water you drank. Remember to know your waters before you buy or ask to read the label so that you know the mineral content. A wonderful meal can be ruined by the laxative effect.

Todd Kliman

Yes, no good. No good at all.

Thanks for chiming in on this — you make two really good points, the one about digestion especially.

I know a lot of people who simply don’t like the carbonation in water, or in anything. Some people never grew up drinking seltzer or soda and find both strange. And they find it strange that someone like me finds it much easier to drink a lot of water when it’s been fizzed up.

The food world pretty clear divides on the question bubbles or no bubbles.

For you, as for me, bubbles have their advantages, and one of them is that it really does help, as you say, when you have a rich and hearty meal.

Gotta run, everyone, I’m sorry to cut things short — if you need me for anything urgent or just want to get something off your chest, drop me a note at tkliman@washingtonian.com

The chat’s taking next week off — send me any recs for Mexico City 😉 — and we’ll meet back here
May 4, same time, same bat channel.

Be well, eat well …

[missing you, TEK … ]