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: email@example.com
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.
SMALL PLATES MEALS:
Question for you and the group. My husband and I have noticed that whenever we go out to a small plates (tapas, etc.) restaurant, we find the restaurant rushing our meal. I know they need the table, but we’re growing a little hesitant to shell out for a nice dinner when we’re made to feel so rushed.
Case in point: we had a lovely meal at Kapnos Taverna this weekend (with a 7:30 pm reservation), ordered drinks and 6 dishes for the two of us, and we’re given our bill at 8:11 pm (they didn’t even ask us if we wanted a second round of drinks). Has anyone else noticed this?
I don’t know that I’ve noticed that, there or anywhere else, but it does seem as though with small plates meals all the usual rules get tossed.
Plates come out whenever the kitchen feels like, old dishes pile up at the table and wait for someone to come and get them, many servers don’t take charge and pace the meal, etc. It’s a free for all.
Has anybody else out there been rushed at a small plates meal?
I will say, speaking of Kapnos Taverna, that I had a recent, terrific meal there, several notches above what I first experienced a couple months ago. Loved, in particular, the lamb gyro.
PITMASTERS BACK ALLEY BBQ:
Hey Todd, your Cheap Eats issue praised the chicken from Pitmasters Back Alley barbecue in Spring Valley. Any word on Pitmasters’ other items?
Quality barbecue in Northwest would change my life. DCity Smokehouse is far, far away from me and I am not a fan of Hill Country.
Yeah, sorry, just the chicken.
Everything else, including the sides, was just so-so. Nothing had all that much flavor.
NEW RESTAURANTS COMING TO BARRACKS ROW:
While out wandering this weekend I spotted two intriguing building permits on Barrack’s Row – one for an NRG spot and one evidently coming from Rob Weiland.
Do you have any info on either? Given the relative lack of great spots on BR (outside Rose’s, Cava and a few others), we were very excited to see these two moving in.
No intel from me, other than what I read in the Post about the NRG venture — that it’ll be from the Red Apron team, and be a bar.
As for Weland, this is exciting to hear. He did fantastic work at Poste, and then at Cork, and I’m really eager to see what he’ll do in a setting where — I’m guessing, now, going off of what he’s told me in the past — he’ll be in charge of things as well as cooking.
It’s interesting to see all this activity going on, now, on Barracks Row — the smashing success of Rose’s Luxury no doubt goosing a lot of it.
I think Barracks Row has one of the most interesting mixes of races, cultures, and ages in the city. It feels more like a city, more like this city, than any street other than U.
Where can I find a place that has proper jamon? I don’t mind having it there or also taking it home, but I am craving for jamon iberico or pata negra, marcona almonds and cold sherry. Any thoughts?
I’ve been to Barcelona which is OK but seems to be more of a scene which is not necessarily what I am into. Also, is there a place where I can enjoy vermouth? Not a martini, but proper vermouth where I could get an opportunity to taste various kinds?
Try Estadio, for eating in.
For taking out, Alphonse on U.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: DCITY SMOKEHOUSE:
Finally made the trek to DCity Smokehouse (twice) this weekend. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll bother to go back. Raised expectations probably didn’t help, but I thought most of the food was good without being awesome.
On the plus side, I enjoyed the brisket, Den-Den sandwich, wings, brussels sprouts, pinto beans, and pickles. Most disappointing were the ribs, which didn’t seem to have much flavor. I don’t usually add sauce to BBQ, but I did with the ribs. I’d also skip the potato salad and collards.
Overall, the food wasn’t worth the experience of waiting in the cramped quarters with ineffective air conditioning (to the point of feeling bad about the people having to work all day in those conditions), eating in your car, and not having a beer.
I’ll take my future BBQ business back to the comfort of Fat Pete’s in Cleveland Park (love the grilled cheese with burnt ends).
I’d go back to DCity. It might’ve been a time of day thing. Maybe you got product that had been sitting—? It happens with barbecue.
The thing I liked most, on my last visit, were the ribs.
KEEPING KOSHER :
In your chat you expressed admiration for kosher-keepers who strayed to eat soft-shell crabs. I don’t think that people should be praised because they set aside their religious beliefs on account of a great dish. I eat non-kosher food, but dine with many people who don’t. They wouldn’t stray because a dish looks appealing, nor would I encourage them to do so.
The fact that you took this as the highest form of praise for a dish really rubbed me the wrong way.
I hear you.
And if I could, I would take it back, or at least scale back the enthusiasm of my phrasing. I grew up in a kosher household (my brother was, from a very young age, very devout); I have deep respect for the tradition, even if I no longer keep kosher myself.
Is it fair, though, to say that I praised them for setting aside their beliefs? Or was I expressing admiration for how delicious that dish must have looked, that it could attract people who have organized their eating lives to reject food like that?
Here’s the exchange …
MORE ON SOFT SHELLS:
Sushi Capitol’s soft-shell crab tempura is so sweet and meaty that it was irresistible even to me (a fried-food-phobe) and my friends (kosher).
Readers should bear in mind that they may not be able to drop by without calling for a reservation even on weekdays: when I arrived early last Wednesday, a sign on the front door noted that the restaurant was fully reserved for the night.
Thanks for the tasty tip.
When kosher-keepers temporarily forgo being kosher, then you know a dish has got to be stone-cold delicious.
That’s some high, high praise. I mean, really, that’s got to be the highest praise there is, no?
Actually, let’s mull this a little … Is there anything that would be higher?
Or anything that would be comparable?
A vegetarian temporarily forgoing vegetarianism doesn’t strike me as being nearly as high a form of praise …
SMALL PLATES, CONT.:
Re: rushing small plates:
I think when dining at a small plates restaurant you need to order in a couple of waves. Order a drink and perhaps a dip or something small to snack on. Then go in for a round of vegetable or light dishes. By the time they arrive it’s probably time for another drink. Then move on to more substantial seafood or meat dish or whatever else looks tasty.
If the restaurants are going to toss out the usual rules, create your own.
It’s true. Good advice.
Don’t overload the server at the start and take charge of your meal, be your own pacer.
FOOD VS. AESTHETICS:
Per the conversation a few weeks ago about how a restaurant feels and looks – we tried out a new place in Alexandria this weekend that had clearly spent a lot of money on atmosphere: decorated well, artsy/hipster quotes painted on the wall (complete with a fairly egregious it’s/its typo), beautiful views, great location. Should be a winner, right? Not for us.
Food and service still trump the aesthetics, I think: staff haven’t yet figured out how to be both welcoming and timely, they’d not yet figured out temperature control given all the glass to showcase those views, and they were serving a salmon-mango salad with unripe mango (and despite mentioning it to the waiter, no offer to fix). We likely won’t be back – or if we do, only for drinks outside.
Contrast that with a dinner at Gypsy Soul the same weekend that knocked our socks off. I wouldn’t have necessarily thought a spot in the middle of Mosaic Center shopping mall (and yes, there’s a little suburbia prejudice there) would’ve been that good, but gosh they were terrific.
Warm, inviting staff who were both excited about the food and steered us in interesting directions; some twists in the cooking that gave us new things to talk about (pickled sour cherries are so much better than a regular pickled cherry); and good grief, those fried chicken skins are ridiculous. For a location we were pretty unenthusiastic about before, we’ll gladly drive back again.
This one’s going on our “regulars” rotation — and we’re going to re-evaluate that location/aesthetics prejudice.
I’m high on Gypsy Soul, too. Love those chicken sticks, love the fried quail, love the cocktails.
So, don’t be coy, or be coy, but not that coy: give us a hint, please, about the place in Alexandria. 😉
And I’m with you: Mosaic District is a shopping center.
Re: Jamon – Canales Deli at Eastern Market usually has a whole leg of iberico. And Mockingbird Hill in Shaw for iberico, almonds and sherry.
Thanks for chiming in …
I didn’t realize that Canales had a whole leg; that’s great to know.
SMALL PLATES, CONT.:
Small plates pacing –
Like the original poster, I’ve also felt rushed at small plates joints.
One thing I’ve started doing, which helps, is to order 2-3 things I want to eat at first and ask to keep a menu. When my server returns, I’ll order a couple more things (and another round). For me, helps pace the meal and I also find it helps me not to order too many small plates (or conversely, not enough)!
Again, taking control of the meal …
Slightly off topic, but tangents are the staff of life — I can easily envision the day when restaurants in this country (it’s already starting overseas) go to computer screens. Tap your order out, it goes right to the kitchen’s own computer. A few runners bring out your food. A few GMs wander the floor, troubleshooting and making small talk.
I don’t want to see this happen, but there’re a lot of things with regard to computers that I haven’t wanted to see happen that have happened. It’s inevitable. I can see it being a big thing at a certain level of restaurant.
And then, of course, the boutique countermovement, the SWPL backlash — restaurants that insist on hiring waiters, insist on the human touch, so that something you now take for granted becomes a cherished heirloom, a romantic and artisanal link to the vanished past.
What are your thoughts on the new “supercenter” retail/office/condo model of dining? In the suburbs with the abundant space it seems like it makes a lot of sense–a DGS Delicatessen, Ted’s and Brine/Rappahancock, Gypsy Soul at Mosaic are awesome treats for those in the suburbs that may not want to come into DC to try the original locations/food. However, they are also all local operations rewarding organic growth here.
Does it gets a little different though when we look at City Center and see the overwhelming reliance on New York talent and brand names to justify the higher condo costs and general posh-ness? DC always has this (largely made up) rivalry with New York and other East Coast food cities, but we still seem to look to NYC brand name chefs as our lodestars. Aren’t there great local talents you would love to see benefit from that kind of platform?
It’s a really interesting contrast, isn’t it?
Mosaic is overwhelmingly local, City Center overwhelmingly not.
I like what Mosaic has done in concentrating on the homegrown. To take just one example, Sisters Thai, a restaurant I found a few years ago, is now part of the complex. This is not a local chain, a la Taylor Gourmet, nor is it a high-profile chef get, like Gypsy Soul. I give the team at Mosaic a lot of credit for bringing Sisters Thai in.
As for City Center, I think it’s still creating an identity. A lot of what it is and how it’s perceived, I think, will be determined by how good the new David Chang restaurant is. Not to say the venture hangs in the balance or anything, but I do think that if it is going to become what was hyped to be, then the new Chang venture will have to become a national-class type restaurant.
KEEPING KOSHER, CONT.:
That whole kosher/soft shell thing a couple of weeks ago tweaked me, too, when I first read it back then. I keep a kosher home and while I’m more than happy to eat out, I stick to vegetarian and/or fin fish pescetarian when I do.
My husband, abides by the household rules and eats whatever the hell he wants when we’re out. In fact, on a very early date, he offered me a taste of his soft shells, not having discussed my dietary choices yet.
It doesn’t matter how delicious something he’s eating looks to me — and oh so often it does — because I’ve chosen how I want to do things. I’m just happy to see him enjoying them.
The anecdote relayed in the original post simply told me that the folks who chose to eat the crabs had different standards overall…it told me nothing about how good the food might be.
We don’t know what their standards are. Maybe they’ve never done this before. Maybe they’ve done this only once. We don’t know.
I hear you when you say it doesn’t tell you how good the food is. It tells you, I think, that the food looks really, really good, and in my experience, when something looks really, really good it often (not always, but often) is.
I’m fascinated that people would be tempted enough to suspend their deeply-held beliefs. But then, I have to say I’ve always been attracted to transgression. To transgression as an idea, and to transgressors. Whatever the walk of life, the culture, the milieu.
I am sorry that I came across glibly with this, and I apologize to you, too, for communicating a lack of regard for the tradition.
For Jamon, it’s worth swinging by Cheesetique. They’ve got the Iberico as well as a duck breast that’s out of this world.
Tell me more about that duck breast …
HAPPY HOUR AT DINO’S GROTTO:
A shout out for the happy hour at Dino’s Grotto. The drinks are creative, large and tasty. And reasonably priced when compared to all the $14 and $12 cocktails about town. They make a great negroni. The bar food is half priced.
Charcuterie is as good as any we’ve had recently and $9.50 for a big assortment. Fried tomatoes, potatoes fried in duck fat and tossed with sheep cheese and deviled eggs with some sort of curry spice, crisp prosciutto and two sauces all for $4 or $5.
The burger is superb. The barkeeps have great senses of humor and are knowledgeable about the large selection of spirits. We find ourselves going more and more often.
Sounds wonderful, all of it.
Thanks for the tasty report.
It’s great to hear about a restaurant putting a lot of effort into happy hour. Good for Dino’s Grotto …
We took the kids to Silver Diner for a celebration dinner the other night, and for some reason I found the menu baffling. Not just a wide, borderline random assortment of dishes meant to, I guess, approximate a “normal” diner (I found myself choosing between a spicy chicken pasta or the country fried steak breakfast), but also arranged in the least reader-friendly way possible. (There’s an entire section of the menu that just I think just aggregates the “healthy” dishes from the rest of the menu, which seemed odd.)
As a kid, the go-to in menu weirdness was that tome they give you at Cheesecake Factory (“It has ads!” I’d say in wide-eyed wonderment), but this felt somehow even more daunting.
What, in your memory, is the most baffling/daunting/perplexing menu you’ve come across? Is this only a curse on chain restaurants?
Huh. I’ve never thought the menu at Silver Diner was that odd. I’ve taken a lot of people there, and nobody has ever had that reaction, either.
It’s large, it sprawls, it seems to be trying to cover every possible base. But odd? That’d be down there on the list for me.
I think a lot of non-chain restaurants actually have odder menus. Like, for instance, Stone’s Cove Kitbar, with locations in Herndon and Owings Mills. The menu includes something called Appetapas (copyrighted, natch). What’s an appetapa, you ask? Here’s one: Upride down meatloaf cupcakes with horseradish mashed potato frosting. Here’s another: Margarita crab lettuce wraps. That, friend, is odd.
I also find a lot of the new categories you see now on menus to be odd — a section for snacks on the same page you see a section for starters. Or menus that are organized by “protein.” Or menus that are organized by price: the $8 category, the $12 category, the $16 category, the $20 and up category.
All odder, in my opinion …
ALEXANDRIA DINING & JAMON, CONT.:
Seems mean to call out explicitly a restaurant on its first week when their fail was so evident…but let’s just say the Alexandria waterfront’s latest endeavor isn’t likely to make anyone other than the tourists excited.
On Jamon, we’ve had very good luck from Zingerman’s. You may not think mail-order for things like this, but trust me, Zingerman’s meats (and their cheese, and breads, and, and, and) aren’t like most mail-order options: they’re sourcing bellota directly from Spain in small batches and we’ve also found them responsive to direct requests if we’re looking for something even more esoteric. Our guilty pleasure is their Tamworth smoked pancetta but it’s pretty hard to go wrong there.
Good to know. Thanks.
And not surprising — Zingerman’s seems to carry everything, including, I’m told (still want to try it) homemade cream cheese.
SMALL PLATES, CONT.:
As someone who was raised in a country where Mediterranean and the Middle East meet, and traveled to Italy and Spain, to me the logic of small plates is not “committing” to a whole meal at the beginning. As a culture it usually is not an eating adventure on its own, but is a vehicle to catch up with someone and carry a long conversation, hence:
1. You order just a couple dishes at first, generally enough for everyone to have about a piece or a tablespoon. You chat and sip while going this round. This allows you to judge the quality of cooking at the place and decide what you want to order more of (or move on somewhere else).
2. You order another round of what you liked or couple others you didn’t get to in the first round. You carry on with the chat and judge what you’re in the mood for if you’re sticking around. This first phase can easily take an hour on its own, and in the countries that offer the small plate culture, servers know that their duty is simply to clean empty plates, fill empty glasses and be visible but not ask for “what is next?” If for some reason your’s doesn’t, it’s perfectly fine to tell them “we’ll start with small plates and decide as we go” at the beginning.
3. Depending on the mood and the conversation (generally this is when you know you are enjoying yourself and don’t want it to end) you call the server and consult with him on the main course “we’re in the mood for fish, what do you recommend?” Or “we’re thinking about a portion of mullet and some flank steak” so he knows you trust his expertise and can take charge or make the right recommendations. This is generally when you get one or two main courses to be shared by the whole table. In parts of the mediterranean, even what we would call “main course” comes in smaller plates (unless you order a double portion for a large party) so you can test and order more, or have variety. Generally this order also has some side dish or salad depending on the country.
4. Most places that specialize in small plates and fish don’t offer much for dessert, and in general, most people in this culture like to take a walk after dinner and get ice cream or another dessert somewhere else. However, coffee is almost always a must, in some places tea as an alternative, and in some parts of the mediterranean tea/coffee after a meal is on the house, as no proper owner would want their guests to leave without a proper end to the meal. Sometimes you skip step 3, sometimes you repeat small plates for 3 and leave without having a main course. These meals easily last 1.5-2 hours, and if you have a large group possibly longer. At the same time, if you are just planning to do the first round and run to something else, that is perfectly fine, too, you can be in and out in 15-30 min, you just tell your server accordingly who can make or break a meal in my opinion.
I think small plates restaurants here have a tough job when people walk in with different expectations. I also understand that you can’t have 2-3 people occupying a table for 2 hours on a Saturday night unless they are ordering a decent amount of meal or drinks, however, I think a lot falls on the management and training the servers so they can read customer expectations. Then of course, there’s nothing wrong with voicing them at the beginning of the meal “we are on a much needed date night and don’t want to be rushed” or “we are planning to go to 9pm movie and would like to leave by 8:30”
You make a good point — small plates didn’t originate as a meal, but rather as a prelude, a few dishes to whet the appetite and kick off the night.
But it’s become a way to dine, and in many cases restaurants have abdicated their usual responsibilities for overseeing and pacing and shepherding these meals. Small plates can be one of the best ways to dine, but it also can be one of the worst and most chaotic ways to dine.
You, too, advocate being vocal at the table and taking responsibility for the meal. It’s really good advice and, especially if you’re trying to make a show or game, or you don’t want to have things devolve into madness, a sure way — maybe the only way — of making certain you get what you want.
Gotta run, everyone. Thanks for the feedback today, the great questions, the great tips, the reports from the field, the thoughtful commentary. I appreciate it.
Off to work on a column …
And thanks, also, for being so supportive of Otherwise. I’m grateful for this new forum, grateful for the latitude, and grateful, also, for your tweets and emails and repositings each week.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …[missing you, TEK … ]