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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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’ polenta, 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 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.
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, 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.
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, 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.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR GOOD EATS IN A BIT OF A DEAD ZONE?:
I am attending an event at NPR headquarters. It’s at 6:30 PM on a Tuesday, and Google Maps indicates that the location is in a bit of dead zone, food-wise.
What do you recommend on H Street or anywhere in NoMa either before or after? I will have a car.
See if you can make a reservation at Ocopa, on H St.
It’s not cheap by the standards of much of H, and portions are sized more for aesthetics than to fill the stomach before or after a show, but the cooking — Peruvian, with an emphasis on fish and potatoes — is often terrific.
Focus on the first half of the menu, even bypassing entrees. I like most of the barely touched treatments of fish and seafood — tiradito, ceviche — and the potato preparations are even better, in my experience.
Another idea is the new Maketto, if you can get in. I’ve been once, and haven’t seen enough or eaten enough to recommend or not recommend it, but I can tell you I’m intrigued enough to return.
DATING A RABID CHOWHOUND — WHERE DO I TAKE HIM?:
Ok so I just started dating a hole-in-the-wall-mom-and-pop-travel-hours-for-authentic food lover.
Honestly, I’m more of a Matchbox/Le Diplomate kind of girl so I’m lost as to where to suggest we go. He moved here two weeks ago from NY.
I’m thinking of taking him to Taqueria el Mexicano for dinner but I need a lunch place too- Bethesda/Rockville area ideal. Other ideas welcome as well for future travels.
You’re in for an adventure!
Presumably, his zeal for these kinds of places suggests and appetite for life and experience in a variety of forms.
So, enjoy the ride, and I’ll be rooting for the two of you …
In Rockville, for lunch, how about China Bistro, aka Mama’s Dumplings, for a lunch of beef and celery dumplings, shrimp and chive dumplings, cold sesame noodles, and garlicky pickles?
Unfortunately, no cold beer, but you’ll eat well and abundantly, trust me.
I’ll be awaiting a full and detailed report of your first dining adventures together. Good luck. And I’m happy to have (I hope) helped …
CHARLOTTESVILLE EATS AND ETC. :
Hi Todd –
Do you have suggestions for a two-day trip to Charlottesville – including your favorite wineries, restaurants, and other activities?
I just did a review of The Alley Light in Charlottesville for this month’s magazine. There’s a thumbnail review up top of this chat. I adore the place. May it long live.
I’d build my trip around that. It’s certainly worthy of centerpiecing.
Beyond that, I like Revolutionary Soup for lunch the next day. (If you do the Alley Light right, with lots of cheeses and pates and terrines, you will be full, trust me.)
Barboursville Vineyards is a gorgeous getaway 25 minutes outside of C-ville and sort-of on the way home. The wines are superb, and you can sample them in the beautiful tasting room — although, nota bene, many of them only truly show out in the company of food. I love their current Nebbiolo, their Octagon (a red blend), and their Vermentino (a white).
There are, by the way, more than a dozen wineries in the Charlottesville AVA, or American Viticultural Area. Other good ones: King Family Vineyards in Crozet; White Hall Vineyards in Crozet; Jefferson Vineyards in Charlottesville; and, though it pains me to do anything to line his pockets further, Trump Winery in Charlottesville.
Monticello is well worth a visit, if you’ve never been. The architecture is fascinating, a pretty revealing peek into the mind of Jefferson, and just as fascinating is touring the slave quarters.
Finally, used bookstores. Charlottesville is full of them. Blue Whale. Read it Again Sam. Daedalus. I think it’s one of the draws of going down for a couple of days.
Hope that gives you some good ideas. I’ll be interested in hearing what you ended up doing.
DINING AT PRIVATE SOCIAL CLUBS :
I enjoyed the recent Washingtonian article on the decline and fall (and attempted resurrection) of private social clubs in DC.
In your experience how is the food at these establishments? Would someone interested in a good meal — as opposed to a venerable setting — want to wrangle an invitation to any of these places?
No idea. I’ve never been to one.
Never even thought, until just now, to try to get into one to sample the eats.
(Maybe it says something about me that I have given thought to doing a piece on the food at establishments at, shall we say, somewhat the opposite end of the spectrum of respectability.)
Has anyone out there been to a private social club in the city —?
If so, please let us know what your experience was like. I’d like to know, too.
WHERE TO SEND OUT-OF-TOWN GUESTS?:
Todd – many of my friends are travelling to town to attend a big event I’m hosting. I’d love to give folks a couple of suggestions on dining destinations that they can visit that are unique to DC.
Most folks are staying in Arlington – I’d love to give a few suggestions with a range of cuisines – price ranges and feels.
Extra points for metro accessible (I want to recommend Bangkok Golden but I’m afraid everyone will get lost!)
I’ll try my best …
Enat for Ethiopian. Not Metro accessible. Cheap. Great for vegetarians.
Liberty Tavern. Metro accessible (Clarendon). Mid-level American, with pronounced Italian accents.
Bayou Bakery. Metro accessible (Courthouse). Cheap. NOLA cooking and baking. Great for breakfast and lunch, too.
Water & Wall. Not far from a Metro. Higher end of moderate/lower end of expensive. Globally-influenced American dining.
Ray’s to the Third. Not far from a Metro. Steak ‘n’ cheeses and the Ray’s burger. Good for lunch.
The new Tazza Kitchen. See my thumbnail review above. Not Metro accessible. Mid-level American, with some Italian and Mexican influences. Good bar, too.
Rus Uz. Uzbeki cooking: meat-filled breads and dumplings, good borscht. Not far from a Metro. Cheap/cheap-ish.
Ravi Kabob. The preeminent Pakistani kabob house in the area. Not far from a Metro. Cheap.
I hope that helps you and them out.
If you need other ideas, feel free to drop me a note — email@example.com
YOUR RECENT TRIP:
So, how was Mexico City?
In so many ways.
I had incredible food. And one of the things that struck me is how well you can eat without a lot of money. There are little diners, if you will, in all of the big markets, and the food is made from scratch that morning and given lots of care and love. I ate a lot of tacos every day, in restaurants, on the streets, and in between, and never had a bad one. Some were spectacularly great. Many were excellent.
Another thing that struck me is that there’s food everywhere you turn in the city. It’s a great thing to see, an amazing thing to see. A city constantly cooking, constantly eating, constantly thinking about the next meal.
I had meals at two of the most highly regarded restaurants in the world right now, Jorge Vallejo’s Quintonil and Enrique Olvera’s Pujol. Both knocked me out. Invention, playfulness, depth of flavor, precision, soulfulness. What more can you ask for?
Right up there, although at a different level of ambition, was Alejandro Escalante’s La Casa de Los Tacos, in Coyoacån. Escalante is a food writer, culinary historian, and, if you will, a taco scholar. His restaurant makes fantastic gorditas, tostadas, and, of course, tacos, including a taco made with beef breast and cebollitas. Memorable and amazing.
My companion throughout my trip was Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, much of which is set in Mexico City, including Colonia Condesa, where I stayed, and the book had me in a kind of fevered trance by the time I touched down at Juarez. I saw the city through my eyes and also through Bolaño’s, or no, that’s not quite right — I saw through his eyes first and then my own, his vision, in a sense, superimposed on my own.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: THE INN AT LITTLE WASHINGTON:
Went back to the Inn at Little Washington recently and have to agree with your downgrade.
It’s still fun, it’s still great, but the three prix fixe menus just take away some of the specialness (particularly when one of them is fairly consistent with prior meals, and where the amuse bouche overlaps substantially with the ones they sent out the last time we were there about ten months prior). A few minor glitches in the service – bread not replenished, water glasses not kept full, and it just doesn’t stand out in quite the same way as it used to, particularly at that price point. We’re sorry to see the change, as it’s always been a special place for us, though of course, the staff continue to be just as warm and inviting as ever (their bartender, in particular, does just a lovely job).
But there is one place where they still hit it out of the park, and it’s a surprisingly delightful one. We asked them to put together a picnic basket for us for lunch and it was everything you’d want it to be: quirky, delicious, overflowing with little surprises and delights and unexpected treats. There was no phoning it in: this was a basket filled with everything from the lightest, fluffiest ham biscuits to a wonderful thai-inspired chicken salad and a twist on lox with pickled peppers and a dill mustard sauce, plus at least four other mini-courses. The Inn makes a casual lunch out in the country feel unexpectedly decadent and joyful – an all around pleasant surprise.
Separately, Tula’s in Washington is also starting to do some interesting things. Suspect it’s still trying to find its footing, but we were particularly pleased to see them taking some risks in their dessert course, with an unsweetened juniper whipped cream pavlova that was far braver than most desserts we’re seeing come through these days.
Another new discovery for us was the Creekside Bakery in Sperryville – it’s tiny and super-casual, but they are just killing it with even their basic sandwiches: homemade pesto and tomatoes with actual flavor plus three kinds of cheese grilled together for less than 6$. Well worth a stop if you’re on your way out to the mountains.
Thank you so much for taking the time to put together this great and detailed report — and for the two tasty-sounding tips.
I appreciate it.
As for the Inn, that’s interesting. I’ve been hearing only very good things since the recent 100 Best …
How about the Wizards/Bullets sweep of Toronto and stealing game one against Atlanta? Whitman has shown he can adjust for the playoffs by moving Pierce out to a stretch 4 position and Otto has come alive with the start of the playoffs. I don’t think Nene will be effective against the Hawks. He just doesn’t match up well against them. Also, if Beal’s injury is severe it will have a big impact on the series going forward.
I don’t want to say anything.
I don’t want to express giddiness.
I’ve been a fan of this franchise for too long to want to jinx a thing like this.
I will say that I don’t know who this Randy Wittman is, the Randy Wittman who makes a point of spreading the floor with a jump-shooting power forward and encourages three-point shooting. Where has that Randy Wittman been all season?
I will also say that the sudden emergence of Otto Porter has almost singlehandedly given me hope for the future, because a team with three very young, smart, two-way players is a team with a core, whereas a team with only two young, smart, two-way players is a team that is always going to be on the verge of.
I love Paul Pierce. How can anyone in this town not love Paul Pierce? This is one of the great gamers in sports history.
And John Wall has become, is becoming, much more than I thought he ever would be. It’s amazing to watch.
What’s equally amazing to me is that most people in this city have no idea who he is. Most of the people I know say, Well, I prefer college basketball. Or, baseball is my game. Or, I can’t wait for football season. John Wall is the kind of professional athlete you can only dream of seeing playing for your team in his prime. He plays his effing heart out. He works hard to improv. He’s always “thinking the game,” as they say, always looking for angles, weaknesses, tendencies in the other player he can take advantage of. He’s a blur on the court.
What’s not to like?
And still, the crowds are anemic, uninvolved, decidedly unfantatical compared to those in Oakland, Houston, Portland, Cleveland, etc. It’s sad.
DINING AT PRIVATE CLUBS:
Regarding your question about eating at private clubs, I have eaten lunch as a guest at the Metropolitan Club a few times.
In all cases, the food was…adequate — like a high-end but run-of-the-mill hotel restaurant. I particularly remember the “signature” soup tasting like it was from a can, and a crab dish being generously portioned and of good but not great quality.
I don’t know the prices because the club gave me a price-free menu. The service was highly obsequious, of the “Welcome back Mr. Jones, will you have the usual cocktail?” type that you’d expect at a private club whose membership has barely turned over since the Harding Administration.
I’ve never been to one, but man, your description is so good and honest and ring-truish that I feel as though I have.
Oof, that sounds awful.
I particularly love: ” … whose membership has barely turned over since the Harding Administration.”
ANNIVERSARY MEAL IN DC:
Hi Todd – we are heading out to dinner for an anniversary meal in DC. This is our first time with a babysitter in quite a while. Do you have any suggestions for dinner in DC – we would prefer a more formal setting with good service (that takes reservations!), as we usually go to more kid-friendly places/mom and pop restaurants.
In the past we’ve enjoyed Rasika, Komi, Bourbon Steak, Joe’s, and the now defunct Palena. What do you think about the Grill Room? Any other places to consider?
What about any of the restaurants in the Fabio Trabocchi empire? Fiola Mare is the swankest and most special occasion-ish, with absolutely terrific fish and seafood. Casa Luca is the least expensive, but — see thumbnail review above — a richly rewarding experience all the same.
Or consider Osteria Morini on the southwest waterfront. Really good pastas and fantastic desserts.
I’ve only been to the Grill Room once, so take what I say with a grain of truffle salt. I found the cooking to be largely lacking in the magic I had come to expect fairly routinely at Palena in its heyday. My impression was of technically correct cooking that lacked spark and oomph. And the prices are high, high, high — $23, I believe, for a Manhattan?
WIZARDS, CONT. :
Our fans only like to cheer in the 4th quarter when a sandwich from Chick-Fil-A is on the line.
Yeah. It’s embarrassing.
I would like to see Ted Leonsis set aside a thousand seats in the lower bowl for actual fans — fans who will stand up at will, who will heckle and scream and be obnoxious to visiting players, who will paint their faces (I’ve never seen this at a Wizards game).
I would like to believe these people do exist.
But what I see on TV, and what I see when I go to games, is a lot of people who are out to be entertained. That’s not the same thing as fandom. In fact, it’s quite the opposite of fandom.
Fandom doesn’t want to be entertained. Fandom doesn’t want to see great basketball plays. Fandom doesn’t go to a game in order to say: I went to a game, I was there. Fandom wants to destroy the other team. Fandom wants to see Lebron James walk off the court not just in defeat but in humiliation.
As I said, I would like to think these kinds of fans exist in this city. But then again maybe they don’t. I can’t remember the last time I saw behavior like this.
It’s telling, I think, that the most rabid fan in the franchise’s history was Robin Ficker — a lawyer (obviously), who attempted to humiliate the opposition with pointed and well-researched epithets.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: CRANE & TURTLE, PETWORTH:
My wife and I made a trip to Crane and Turtle a week or two ago. And…wow.
The place is tiny, and feels personal, in a way that not even Rose’s Luxury replicates. And the food sung with personality. The food was playful, but serious at the same time- as you pointed out in your review regarding the tuna tataki (with the tuna sauce), and as the chefs pointed out to us about the Pork Pork Salad (named to remind you of pok pok salad), which was reminiscent of a Korean salt and pepper pork dish my mom used to make. They also had a special, of firefly squid, slowly and gently cooked in squid ink, and covered with slivers of green olives from Italy. I’ve never had squid so tender, with the ink over it lending a light salt that somehow complemented the olives with its own brine.
I almost always crave as much protein as I can get my hands on when I go to restaurants, but the Banh Xeo crepe was out of this world incredible, with wonderful funk to the crepe batter and what seemed like a fairly bizarre combination of mushrooms, almonds, gruyere, and cauliflower inside- until you ate it all together and just smiled. The duck szechuan was solid, but probably our least favorite of the night. Just less that was memorable there. We finished with mango steak- it tasted more like mango than mango does. Magnificent.
I also loved the conversation. When I was considering ordering a raw baby eel dish, the chefs apologized and said they were out, then paused for a moment, and pulled out two tiny eels, put them on a plate, sauced it, and handed it to us to try. We were able to ask questions as they prepared our dishes, as they brought them out to us, and as we saw other dishes come out. And the chefs seemed excited to talk about them. They made the experience that extra bit more special.
As a final note, we realized fairly quickly that we were sitting next to a VIP for the restaurant and struck up conversation as we were eating. He turned out to be chef Tom Cunanan, the head chef at the soon-to-open Bad Saint. It was great to talk to folks who were, as he put it, “in the industry” about food as we ate. I was curious if you know any details about Bad Saint. Are you excited about it? Curious? Skeptical?
Thanks so much for the through report. Much appreciated.
I’m glad to hear the place is doing well. Like you, I love its quirkiness, its intimacy, the care of the cooking, and the fact that its dishes aren’t like other restaurants dishes.
Your descriptions have made me hungry. I’m craving that banh xeo!
As for Bad Saint, yeah, I’m curious and intrigued. For one thing, just because there’s not a lot of Filipino cooking in this area. Done right, the flavors are exciting and alive and memorable. It’ll be interesting to see what chef Cunanan can do.
NOT-EXPENSIVE MOTHER’S DAY BRUNCH?:
Where to go for Mother’s Day brunch without breaking the bank?
How about Liberty Tavern in Arlington?
Or Water & Wall, also in Arlington?
Or Vermilion in Old Town Alexandria?
Or Founding Farmers in DC?
None of these places is going to leave you feeling pinched.
Alternatively, and even more cheaply, what about a dim sum Mother’s Day? Think either Hong Kong Pearl in Falls Church or Oriental East in Silver Spring.
ANANDA, IN FULTON:
Heading to Ananda tonight for dinner. Father in Law flew in last night for a business trip and is staying close to Fulton.
It will be my first time dining there. Looking forward to see how it compares to Rasika.
No no no — don’t do that.
You’ll only be setting yourself, and the place, up for disappointment. They’re similar in that they’re both Indian and not curry houses. Try to meet it on its own terms.
I’ll be interested in hearing what you have to say. Please report back next week!
Re: Fandom – the fans you are describing attend DC United games.
That’s interesting. I wish I liked soccer more.
It’s true, also, for Caps games, from what I’ve seen. That building gets rowdy and loud.
The fans at the Verizon Center for Wizards games are professional class. I can’t imagine that the Caps fans are not professional class, too. I mean, it’s DC. But the Caps fans shed that self when they walk in. They come dressed in hockey sweaters or wearing red. They come ready to yell and be someone or something else.
The basketball-goers (can’t really call them fans, can we? they’re far from fanatic) look, to me, to be watching a giant flatscreen TV. Removed, disinterested. Not un-interested, they’re interested, but they seem to have the objective detachment of a non-fan. It’s bizarre.
Gotta run, everyone. Thanks so much for the great questions and reports from the field and expressions of excitement over the Wizards in the playoffs 😉 …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …[missing you, TEK … ]