Tuesday, May 26, 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’ polenta, 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.


SOFT SHELLS:

Have you seen any soft shells yet this season?

Todd Kliman

I hear tell of them. Just coming in now. But no, I haven’t had my first soft shells of the season. That needs to be rectified IMMEDIATELY.

From what I hear, they’re bigger than they were last year. But last year was a year of very small soft shells. I’ll be interested in seeing them and tasting them for myself …

Good morning, everyone. I hope you had a good, relaxing, meaningful Memorial Day …

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FOLLOWING-UP FROM LAST WEEK: HONEYMOON SPLURGE MEAL:

Re: Honeymoon Splurge Meal

We just got back from a trip to Barcelona where there are some amazing places to eat at almost every price point.

In the splurge-worthy category we had great meals at Tickets and Disfrutar both of which are great examples of the Ferran Adria/El Bulli school.

If they have enough time in Barcelona and could take a train ride to Girona, without a doubt El Cellar de Can Rocas would be the place to go (if you can get a reservation). We just ate there for the second time on this trip and were blown away by the quality of the food, wine and service.

Todd Kliman

You didn’t even give descriptions of your meals, and I’m hungry just thinking about it.

Thanks for this. I hope the chatter from last week sees it.

And if you were inclined to supply some mouth-watering details, we out here in chat land would not object at all, would we?

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STAND-OUT JERK CHICKEN AND ROTI?:

Seems like there’s a ton of Caribbean restaurants in the NW/NE area. Is there one you feel stands out above the rest for Jerk Chicken/ Roti?

Todd Kliman

You’re right, there’re a ton.

With, unfortunately, a lot of mediocre cooking coming from the kitchens. But some spots stand out.

For jerk chicken, I like what Philip Ajaj does at Just Jerk in Lanham. Deep penetration of smoke into the chicken, with enough vinegary tang and enough heat and spice in the rub.

Teddy’s Roti is a great spot for roti and buss up shut.

You didn’t ask about “in general,” but if you’re looking for a good Caribbean meal “in general,” then it’s got to be Gary McNaughton’s Pimento Grill in Southeast. I wish there were more tables. I love the goat curry.

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THE NEGRONI:

I enjoyed your latest Otherwise on the Negroni. (And am enjoying the column in general, please keep up the great work!)

Like you, I’m a fan of this great drink. I have a few questions for you. Why do you think it’s becoming more popular? I see it in many restaurants now where I didn’t years ago. Also, do you really not think there is a noticeable difference in the drink when it is made with care by a top-notch mixologist?

Todd Kliman

Here’s last week’s column, in case anyone has not seen it:

https://www.washingtonian.com/blogs/bestbites/todd-kliman-otherwise/todd-kliman-dont-mess-with-the-negroni.php

Thanks for writing …

I’ll start with the question of popularity and say that I’m kind of mystified. It’s not a drink that is meant to reach a broad swath of the drinking public. It’s difficult for most people because of its bitterness, a bitterness that isn’t just there in the background, one element among many. No, this is a foregrounded bitterness.

I think it’s attractive to the foodie equivalent of cocktail drinkers, people who are interested in exploring and trying new things, new flavors, new preparations. And many mixologists I’ve met and talked with have a lot of affection for it. So, they put it on their lists. If you look, there’re a lot of lists now that have a Negroni or something that resembles a Negroni.

Something resembling a Negroni is not, generally, to my personal taste. I like the simple original. Not Negroni-like. A Negroni.

As to your second question, yes, I do notice a difference. In the column, I wrote that I would take that version eleven times out of ten. But I’m not, generally, unhappy with a Negroni that doesn’t take ten minutes to make. I like the simple ones, I like the more complicated ones.

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SOFT SHELLS, CONT.:

Had a soft shell sandwich at Brookland’s Finest over the weekend. Wonderful!

They offer them as a daily special (not every day!) as a sandwich, app, or entree. They announce the specials on Twitter and Facebook, so you have to check before you go.

Todd Kliman

That’s great.

Thanks for the tip.

I have to say, though, that my one meal at Brookland’s Finest about nine months ago was not good. Four people, and not one of us had a good meal.

You’re giving me a reason to go back …

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SOFT SHELLS, CONT.:

Todd,

Chef Erin Clarke has soft shells on the dinner menu tonight at Casa Luca!

They are marinated in farm egg, white wine and fresh thyme, then lightly dredged in flour, and fried. The soft shells are served with local asparagus and Anson Mills creamy white polenta “Venetian style”.

Jessica at Fiola

Todd Kliman

Jessica, thanks for the heads up.

I love soft shells with some kind of corn, and having them with Anson Mills polenta sounds great.

By the way, you mentioned “farm egg” in your description. Isn’t every egg a farm egg?

I had a meal recently where the menu pointed out a “farmed” egg. A bit much, no?

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SOFT SHELLS, CONT.:

Hanks has them!

I had them at the Old Town location–lightly sauteed in lemon and capers.

Delish!!

Todd Kliman

Wow, I love getting all these soft shell sightings.

Keep ‘em coming, everyone!

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THE NEGRONI, CONT.:

Hey Todd,

I’ve always wanted to try them but never have. The bitterness always scared me off.

But you seem really passionate about them and I trust you when it comes to recommending food and drink.

Todd Kliman

If the bitterness scared you off, I’m not sure you’re going to want to take the plunge.

There are, yes, some Negronis that are less bitter. Some mixologists like a softer or more muted attack. Ask the person making your drink (if you’re in a position to ask) how bitter their version is. If they tell you that they’re essentially trying to tamp down the bitterness, then give it a try. There’s a chance you might like these versions.

But a standard Negroni, a straight up Negroni, is going to be bitter. There’s no way around that, and for those of us who love the bitterness, love that bracing bite, we wouldn’t want there to be.

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FARM GROWN, CONT.:

“Farm grown” can be seen as “greenwashing” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwashing

The worst culprit of that term I’ve seen is a Lay’s potato chips ad that’s running now with the Lay’s “corporate chef” saying what makes his chips different is that the potatoes are “farm grown.”

Where else does one grow potatoes? I’m sure everyone from McDonald’s, Lay’s, and Ore-Ida, down to the most expensive restaurants in the world get theirs from farms.

Todd Kliman

Greenwashing. What a great and needed word. Thanks for turning me on to this.

You could make the argument that farm-to-table is greenwashing, too. I mean, right? Where else does produce come from? It’s the quality of the products that matters, the kind of farming that goes on, etc.

Thanks for writing in …

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SOFT SHELLS, CONT.:

I recently had an interesting soft-shell preparation at Ghibellina that has lingered with me for a week.

It was saffron-tinged spaghetti alla chitarra with fried and chopped up soft-shell crabs tossed with spring onions, spring garlic, basil and fresh hot peppers. I loved the way the insides of the soft-shell became part of the sauce.

It was a unique and delicious soft-shell preparation!

Todd Kliman

That sounds fab-U-lous.

I wonder how long that’s going to be on the menu. If chef Copeland is out there lurking, or reading this later today, I hope he can come on and give us a sense of when it’s coming off.

That sounds like the preparation of a real soft shell lover. The innards are part of the deliciousness of a soft shell, not just the meaty center and the crunchy claws.

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WHEATON EATS:

Hey Todd, Jonathan Copeland from Ghibellina here.

My SO and I are headed to Wheaton for a shwarma at Max’s Kosher. Where else should we go in the area for another delicious bite? Any killer tamales or chinese bakeries nearby that we should hit up? Any small snack that we should grab while up in Wheaton?

Thanks for the tips.

Todd Kliman

Whoa, speaketh of the devil!

You must have known that I was calling to you telepathically …

At Max’s, get the falafel. It’s better than the shwarma. Have them load it up. Don’t order anything else.

Beyond that, go to Thai Taste by Kob — chicken himmapan, crispy whole fish with fried basil, curry purses, moo yang.

I like the pupusas at Pupusas y Taqueria Rios. Yellow curtido, not white, with a good pickled flavor.

You should also pop by Mi La Cay, a small Vietnamese spot, and get the M-9, a beef noodle soup with a stock pumped up — I would swear it — with crab, at the very least. Great complexity and heat. And get a cold cut banh mi, the best banh mi you’ll find outside of Falls Church.

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SOFT SHELLS, CONT.:

I had a great softshell crab at the bar at Corduroy a few weeks ago. A simple preparation served on a bed of greens. It was delicious and a great deal as part of the three course/$30 bar menu.

Todd Kliman

I’ve had that dish.

Really good. It’s making me miss the bar at Corduroy …

Keep the sightings coming …

And I love how many soft shell fans there are out there.

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FARM EGGS, CONT.:

Todd, in the case of Casa Luca, it’s a *local* farm egg. (my omission!) But I get your point.

Todd Kliman

Sure.

I figured.

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SOFT SHELLS, CONT.:

Beuchert’s Saloon has an interesting soft-shell preparation on the menu: pan-fried and served over smoked pork belly pupusas, with celery and radish curtido and green tomato relish. Expensive, though. ($30 for an entree portion and $16 for a half.)

I’ve never gotten over being a little squeamish about softshells but try to eat them at least once every season. I go somewhere that I know will do a good job with them, and the Beuchert’s version is one I might go back for a second time before the season is over.

Todd Kliman

That sounds really, really interesting.

Two of the great dishes in the region, together on one plate.

And it worked? Because I could see it going either way …

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DINNER FOR 25 IN GEORGETOWN:

Todd,

Love the chats. I have a group of 25 that wants to have dinner at a restaurant in Georgetown on a Friday night in June. What are the best options?

Yes, it has to be in Georgetown.

Thanks.

Todd Kliman

Is it a problem if it’s expensive?

Fiola Mare will be a lot of pretty pennies, but on a clear Spring night in Georgetown you can’t do any better — food, service, view, all of it.

Let me know if you need another option.

And if you do go, I’d love to hear how things turned out.

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SOFT SHELLS, CONT. :

Yes. It did work. I should have said that 🙂

The contrast of the textures worked well. It almost seemed like a riff on surf and turf, using the two regional specialties.

I had the half order and each of the main ingredients was cut in half. I don’t know if they do the same for the full order. But when you commented on the pasta dish about having the insides exposed, it occurred to me that might have been part of the reason for serving the crab cut.

Todd Kliman

Surf and turf — great insight.

I love seeing interesting variations on surf and turf.

Thanks so much for your elaborations. Much appreciated!

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CHEF COPELAND, CONT.:

Thank you for the Wheaton recommendations- we are en route as we speak. A bahn mi sounds perfect in this heat.

As for the soft-shell pasta, it should be on the menu as long as we are getting reliably fresh, local soft-shells. It is a dish that I have been thinking about for several years, and I am excited that I was able to execute it this Spring.

I’ll let you know how the Wheaton trip was.

Todd Kliman

Please!

And thanks for the word on the dish. I can’t wait to try it.

Get the banh mi but don’t forget about the M-9, even though a soup may be the last thing you want on a day like this. It’s worth it.

Gotta run, everyone, you’ve all made me ravenous.

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

And be sure to read Otherwise this week — I’m excited about what I’ve got planned …

[missing you, TEK … ]

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