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.
MARCEL’S OR KOMI FOR A BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION?:
Is Marcel’s better (more delicious) or Komi? It’s for a birthday celebration and I really want it to be memorable – both in terms of service and food.
They’re different kinds of delicious, and different kinds of nights out.
Marcel’s is old-school. It’s formal. The crowd tends to be older than the crowd at Komi, which tends to be a little older than the crowd at the 14th St. places. The aim of the service, at Marcel’s, is to indulge you and pamper you. Patrons dress up, some extravagantly. The cooking is not what you would call innovative; it doesn’t make that its mission. The kitchen takes immense pride in its saucing. Dishes are intricate. It’s almost shocking, to go to Marcel’s after you have had several meals out at the kinds of restaurants that now proliferate. You think: this is cooking; they’re actually cooking.
I find Marcel’s, over the years, to be more rewarding in the cooler and colder months, because its old-school, Old World-style is most fully realized with heavy preparations and rich reductions — though I do love the Dover sole there.
A meal at Marcel’s is not a meal that wows you from dish to dish; there are wows, but the lingering impression is of opulence, seamlessness, and a sustained high quality throughout.
Komi is more wowing, dish by dish. And it wants to be. That’s what it’s set up to do, to be. It’s also much more informal, much less opulent, much less pampering. It’s fine dining, without coming across in the old, conventional ways of fine dining.
I think it’s a great restaurant. Just as I think Marcel’s is. They’re both fantastic at what they’re doing. It all depends on what you’re looking for, what kind of night you conceive.
Hi Todd, thanks for your great chats.
I want to try to smoke eel on my BGE but have not found a place that sells it fresh. I am hoping you or one of the other chatters might know of a place.
You know, I don’t recall any market I’ve been to in the past year or so that sells it fresh. I hope I’m wrong.
Has anyone seen eel on ice around here?
FOLLOWING-UP FROM LAST WEEK: DUCK BREAST PROSCIUTTO, ZWEIGELT:
We were talking toward the end of the chat last week about jamon, and when I mentioned duck breast at Cheesetique you asked for more details. It’s a duck breast prosciutto. Very rich.
Also, I commented a few weeks ago about wines at Rasika West End, but didn’t see your response until too late. They have several Zweigelt wines, which were nice to see on a menu.
Two great tastes that taste great together.
Actually, I have no idea. That’s just what the old Reese’s commercial used to say.
I wonder, though. Might work. I love Zwiegelts. Really interesting wines.
Thanks for this. I’ll have to stop in and pick up some of that duck breast prosciutto. Sounds wonderful.
FOLLOWING-UP FROM LAST WEEK: ZINGERMAN’S:
I’m from Ann Arbor, Michigan (where Zingerman’s is based) and you can’t go wrong with ordering anything from them! They really invest in their products, only selecting the best meats and cheeses to sell.
They also have a dairy farm (where they make their cream cheese and amazing gelato) and a coffee roasting facility. To say we’re spoiled in Ann Arbor is an understatement!
I highly recommend getting their sour cream coffee cake. It is incredibly moist and is the perfect way to start a morning (or end an evening). Also, if you want to treat yourself, get their Chocolate Cherry Bread. It has a crunchy crust, a slight sour tang, and tons of chocolate and cherries inside. It is great toasted (think melty chocolate) and doesn’t need any toppings.
You’re killing me.
They both sound fantastic. I love sour cream coffee cakes.
How do they hold up after transport? I’m always leery of buying things like this through the mail, because of the time it takes to get to you.
I’m curious to hear what sorts of things all of you like to have shipped to you — cakes, sausages, fish and seafood in cans, that sort of thing. Send tips!
I’ve ordered bagels from St. Viateur in Montreal a couple of times, and they’ve held up surprisingly well. Instructions say to slice them immediately and bag them and pop them in the freezer. When you get one out and toast it, it’s better than 95 percent of what you can buy in the shops.
A PRE-KEN CEN BITE THAT WON’T BREAK THE BANK?:
My husband and I are going to a show at the Kennedy Center tomorrow night and want to grab a small bite to eat before, without breaking the bank. Any ideas on places with good bar menus or appetizers within a reasonable distance?
How about Beefsteak?
Thats chef Jose Andres’s experiment in good-for-you fast food.
It’s about a ten minute walk from there to the Ken Cen.
I can’t say that I loved Beefsteak, which, to be reductionist, comes across as a kind of all-veg Chipotle, but it was an interesting meal, and a nutritious one, and given how extremely healthful it was it was pretty tasty.
Skip the wine in the cans, which are, I think, eight or nine dollars and not worth it — what chance is there to nose the wine with a can? No chance. No chance to see the color either.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: SEASONAL PANTRY, IN SHAW DC:
We had dinner at Seasonal Pantry on Friday night after reserving two seats earlier in the week. We had high expectations considering the consistent accolades they receive and how hard it usually is to get a reservation. Upon arrival, we learned that Dan O’Brien wasn’t cooking that night since he was out of town. We were pretty annoyed by this. Had we known he wasn’t cooking that night we would have picked another night to go.
We are not restaurant novices and understand that there are many high end restaurants where the chef isn’t cooking – you’d never know and it wouldn’t negatively impact the experience or food. Having never been there before we have no real basis for comparison to assess if quality suffered in his absence (overall the food was really very good) but that really isn’t our point. This place is twelve seats and the chef cooks in front of you. The experience is largely chef driven.
While this isn’t entirely the same thing – we’ve been to a number of equally small restaurants in Tokyo recently. If the chef isn’t there they are aren’t open. You don’t go to Jimbocho Den without chef Zaiyu Hasegawa on the other side of the counter. Are we being unreasonable?
Also the carafes of mediocre table wine did nothing for our overall experience. What’s the deal with that?
I’m with you on the wines; I think a meal like that, a tasting menu meal, needs more than “table wines” served in carafes. I understand that it’s not that kind of tasting menu experience, and that having pairings would be complicated and also raise prices, and that finding two wines to go with 5 or so courses isn’t easy, but I think there’s a better solution.
As for chef O’Brien not being there and the meal going on as planned — that just seems odd to me. It’s not a restaurant — it’s a nightly dinner party. And as you say, the reason you go to a place like this is not for the quality of the food, high as it might be; it’s for having something more personal than most restaurant meals, the interaction with the chef as you move through your courses, the unusual intimacy that results.
I don’t think this is being unreasonable; I would have been disappointed, too.
Did anyone at the table one of the staffers why he wasn’t there? And if so, what did that person say?
IN PRAISE OF LITTLE FISH:
I would like to praise little fish and the restaurants that serve them.
Last week at Izakaya Seki we devoured whole fried smelt and whole fried sardines. Served unadorned, except for a wedge of lemon. Whoever is doing the frying at Seki is doing an excellent job.
We also had delicious sardines at Mama Ayeshas recently. Samaak, on the Fried Mezze section of the menu, the sardines are served pan-fried with a dusting of cumin and a squeeze of lemon.
Wow, both sound great.
Thanks for the tasty tips.
Amazing, isn’t it, how great, light, crisp frying can make you so happy, and bad frying — even if it’s not greasy — is just a thudding disappointment that can kill your mood for the next hour?
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: PETER CHANG’S, IN ARLINGTON:
Had a great first meal at Peter Chang’s Arlington last weekend.
There were only a couple of us and we never made it out of the appetizers. We had the Scallion Pancake, eggplant, Bang Bang Shrimp, Diced Chicken with Szechuan Chili Pepper and Beef with Ghost Pepper.
All were excellent. I am putting together a big group to go back. W hat entrees should we not miss?
Also, have you been to Hunan Gate? We really enjoyed the Northern Menu there. Everything we tried was interesting and delicious.
Love your chats.
I haven’t. I know I need to get out there.
There are some weeks I feel as if I live in northern Virginia.
And I’m not complaining, but it happens many, many times that I go out to eat at a restaurant in that part of the area, Szechuan, maybe, or Yemeni, or Pakistani, or Indian, and getting there (because of traffic) takes me about an hour and a quarter (sometimes more) and getting home takes me about 45 to 50 minutes. In other words, sometimes dinner at a restaurant where you can eat for $40-50 for two is a 5-hour endeavor. Just sayin’. I love the adventure, but it might be wise to invest in a cabin out that way.
I’m glad to hear you had a good meal at PC’s. I’ve been hearing things all across the spectrum from people, about both Arlington and Rockville. Were you one of the PC fans from his first go-round here? Some of those fans tend to be a little disappointed, wondering where the magic has gone, whereas some of those new to the PC phenomenon are perfectly content with what they’ve eaten. I’m not saying it breaks down like this with all the reports. But it is a pattern.
The obvious omission from your last meal is the Bamboo Fish — PC’s version of cumin fish. When it’s right, it’s spectacular.
Also: don’t miss the fish soup with cabbage.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: BIRCH & BARLEY, OFF LOGAN CIRCLE:
I went with my boyfriend’s family to Birch and Barley on Sunday for Father’s Day (I suggested it because of the beer list) and had kind of a weird experience with a manager.
Their food seemed overly salty that day (my soft-shell crab appetizer was fried to oblivion :() so when the manager came by around 3/4 of the way through our meal and asked how things were, we told him honestly that we found the brat burger in particular very salty.
He seemed surprised and asked if we wanted to replace it with something else, which we didn’t– we just wanted him to take note. Then, however, he tried to defend it: He said as part of their farm-to-table ethos (which is an annoying thing to talk about over and over, because their servers always do a whole spiel about it), they can’t butcher whole cows, since they can’t use them up in time, so they do pigs.
That’s fine, but we weren’t asking for a beef burger! We just wanted them to know the sausage was salty. It left us feeling like we were in the wrong somehow for questioning their operation.
I think he shouldn’t have waited until 3/4 of the way through the meal to ask how things are.
That visit should happen 1/4 of the way through, in time to make corrections.
I’m guessing that by the time he asked whether you wanted the sandwich replaced you were no longer hungry. I’ve seen this happen many, many times. The diner thinks: yeah, nice thought, but too late.
But here’s the tricky thing: managers are problem-solution people. You presented him with a problem, he came up with a solution. Offering to replace the too-salty brat burger with a properly salted brat burger is what he has been trained to do, and it also happens to be more than a lot of restaurants would have offered up in that circumstance.
By refusing the replacement burger and saying you simply wanted the kitchen to know, you threw the system out of whack. Problem presented, solution offered, solution rejected.
I don’t regard his explanation the way you regarded it. He needed to say something, and so this is what he came up with. The best possible response? Probably not. But he was boxed into that position of saying something when you said that all you wanted was to send a note, so to speak, to the kitchen.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: TAZZA KITCHEN, IN ARLINGTON:
Thank you for spotting Tazza Kitchen. I’d driven past a few times and was curious, but hadn’t gone in. My mistake.
We went as a party of four, two parents and two kids. The kids had some reservations about going away from their comfort zone, but all worked out well. One devoured his meatballs and the other went for a pizza (he loves the combination of proscuitto and arugula).
Service, as you noted, was excellent. We came in near the end of happy hour and were able to get in our order before prices went back up. The bourbon cocktail exceeded expectations and it was nice seeing a happy hour where they just discount their range of beers instead of forcing you into one or two.
The roasted cauliflower was a highlight. I like the dish, but hadn’t had it with such bright flavors in the past. I noticed that Moctec was amongst their suppliers, so had to try dishes with tortillas. I loved the tacos, though the flauta could have used a bit more filling. Guacamole was nice and bright. I look forward to exploring the rest of their menu.
As Tazza is right along the Four Mile Run bike path, you can bet that it’ll be a regular stop off for me in the future.
Thanks for the nice, detailed report …
Yeah, the place surprised me.
It’s part of a small chain that originated in Richmond, and though there are ways that it feels at times like a chain, it transcends chain-ness. I think it’s remarkable to have the sourcing that it does, the level of detail that it does in certain dishes and cocktails, and yet have the prices that it does. If I’m remembering correctly, I don’t think there’s an entree over $18. Most of the excellent cocktails are under $10.
I’ve only been once to the new Tupelo Honey, also in Arlington, but it feels to me much more like part of a chain (which it is, and a larger chain too). Its decor, its vibe, its food.
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
I get that having Chef O’Brien on site and preparing the meal is part of the charm that comes with dining at Seasonal Pantry but maybe Chef O’Brien had a family emergency come up, maybe he just needed a night off too. Seasonal Pantry is a small operation and Chef O’Brien and his staff put in very long hours, preparing that night’s dinner for diners.
I am a loud supporter of Chef O’Brien. I love the effort he puts in. Not just for the nightly dinners but the time he spends preparing items to sell in the pantry portion of the shop (he has since stopped selling pantry items and has added an extra night to the supper club and will be holding more pop up events on the weekend).
Would I be a little disappointed that he was not there for a dinner? Sure, a little. I do know that his sous chef/right hand person Anna is an excellent chef and has worked with Chef O’Brien for a few years now. Plus, for him to close down every time he is not present would be financial disaster for a small operation like Seasonal Pantry. I do hope he is able to launch his fried chicken restaurant in the near future.
I am curious to know what the writer thought of the overall meal (minus the wine). Were there any stand out dishes?
Sure, extenuating circumstances. It happens.
I understand that.
I also understand a diner’s disappointment, and don’t think it’s unreasonable to express that disappointment in a forum like this.
I’d also be interested in hearing more about the meal. My sense, though it wasn’t communicated directly, was that it was fine but not memorable (i.e., lacking in standout dishes). I’d love to hear more, if he or she is still reading the chat …
DC FINE DINING:
I have to be honest, DC does not have one or two or ANY mind blowing places to eat in this city. DC will never reach the NY or SF caliber.
Komi – so over it, Rose’s luxury is eh – strawberry spaghetti is what wow’s Washingtonians, Fiola Mare is good but nothing special, Rasika PLEASE! Please name one spectacular fine dinning experience.
That’s because I killed fine dining in this city. Yep, me, I did it. Single-handedly. With my love of tacos and meals in gas stations. 😉
Forget for the moment whether DC will reach the level of NY or SF — I think you’re being too callous in dismissing what’s here.
Komi may bore you, but that doesn’t take away from what it is; it’s a fantastic restaurant. Fiola Mare is one of the best fish and seafood restaurants in the country. Rose’s Luxury isn’t just long lines, and it’s more than just strawberry spaghetti; the cooking is excellent. Rasika is also excellent, and unique for blending Western-style fine dining with Indian dishes and traditions.
I don’t know about mind-blowing; but how many mind-blowing restaurants do you think there are in NY and SF?
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
“Report from the Field Seasonal Pantry” aren’t you just pretentious little twit. Duh just a little upset since you should have asked who was cooking the night you went. maybe you should asked before being seated too. My advice grow up and stick to the Outback.
The trollish stylings of Clifton, ladies and gentleman …
KHAN KABOB IN CHANTILLY?:
In a few days, I have an evening meeting in Chantilly, which is a rare occurrence for me. As soon as I heard about the meeting, I thought, “Great, finally I can try the lamb brains karahi that Todd Kliman loved so much at Khan Kabob!”
Then I noticed that Khan Kabob is not on this year’s top 100 Cheap Eats list. Does that reflect a decline in quality or is it just a case of “so many restaurants, so little space on the top 100”?
I hope it’s an aberration. But one shaky meal is enough to take a place out of consideration from Cheap Eats contention.
And by the way, they were out of lamb brain karahi last time.
I’d be inclined to give it a shot, though, after calling ahead and seeing whether the lamb brains are on the menu that day.
FOLLOWING-UP FROM LAST WEEK: SMALL PLATES MEAL RUSH:
When we go out at a small plate place we never order more than two plates at a time to maintain control over the flow and pacing.
We will go maybe 3 or 4 rounds in this fashion and never feel rushed, nor do we care about the order that the two plates in each round arrives because we planned them to go together in either order.
It seems that a lot of you have resorted to this kind of self-pacing. Out of necessity, though, rather than out of desire — which is something I hope managers and chefs are taking note of.
Something that didn’t come up in our discussion was coherence. I get coherence when I’m eating tapas, or mezze. I don’t, often, get coherence when I’m in a small plates restaurant that isn’t working within a particular vein — the food of Spain, the food of Lebanon, the food of Turkey, the food of Greece.
Some meals, like the most recent small plates meal I had, are just odd assemblages of tastes. It’s like having a progressive meal, or a meal on the streets, only without taking in the sights, without the adventure, without the sense of making it up as you go.
Also, there are some small plates, now, that I would not say are appetizers, or somewhere between an appetizer and an entree. Some of them, now, are like large amuse bouches.
DINING IN STOCKHOLM AND HELSINKI?:
Hi Todd –
We are heading to the cooler environs of Stockholm and Helsinki next week…I was wondering if any of your readers can share must-eats (both higher and lower price ranges) and anything unique!
What, you don’t think it’s fun to roast like a loin of pork in this eco-oven?
Readers! Have at it …
Meantime, please send back a culinary postcard from your adventures …
KHAN KABOB, CONT.:
The owner of Khan Kabob has been away in Pakistan for sometime, attending to family matters.
I do agree, on my last visit a few weeks ago, the kabobs (my wife ordered the chapli kabob) were a little dry, but the Karahi was still good.
Thanks for the intel.
I hope all is well with Tariq Khan and his family.
Gotta run, everyone, lunch awaits …
Thanks for the great questions and tips and comments and wonderings. I appreciate it. To those of you who read along and sent in questions, I’m grateful, and those of you who read along without taking direct part, I’m grateful, too. Thank you.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
And be sure to check in this Friday for this week’s Otherwise column.
[missing you, TEK …]