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 work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Oxford American, The Daily Beast and Men’s Health, among others, and he has been selected four times for inclusion in the Best Food Writing anthologies.
He is the author 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.
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.
CHINESE IN ROCKVILLE:
Todd, where do you find yourself going for Chinese lately in the Rockville/Derwood metro area?
Jin River used to be my go-to, but I’m looking to branch out (maybe giving A&J another try); Joe’s Noodles used to be really good too, but it’s been a while, so if you have any recs, would love to hear them!
My favorite at the moment is China Bistro.
If I were going for the first time, this would be my order: the terrific house made dumplings (I like the beef-and-celery and the shrimp-and-chive), a bowl of cold sesame noodles, and a dish of garlicky-vinegary cucumber batons.
I’d be interested in hearing some recent reports about Sichuan Jin River. My last two meals there were up and down, and I know some readers had experienced the same thing.
Thrills released its pick for top Italian restaurants in DC, where it listed Osteria Morini as its top pick. The article suggested that the reason why it was so great was because of a carefully picked cast of characters that run the beverage, food and dessert programs. My best friends and I frequent Morini, and we love it so much because of the gorgeous view and everything that is mentioned in the piece.
My question is why do you always recommend Casa Luca which is good but but in our opinion doesn’t come close to Morini in your suggested restaurants each week? Looking at all the criteria – the view and ambiance, the pasta, and the breathtaking and out-of-this-world desserts, all make Morini the stand-out place. Have you had a chance to eat at Morini recently?
First, let me just say that I don’t put places on the list up top necessarily there because I think that they’re THE BEST in the area. I put them there because at the moment I’m excited about them. Because I think what they’re doing is interesting and should be singled out.
In the case of Casa Luca, I do think that it’s one of the best in its class in the area. You called it “good.” I think it’s more than good, much more. Your affection for one place should not blind you to the worth of another.
I like Morini. Alex Levin’s desserts are fantastic, as you say, and I love that they have invested in a pastry chef. I really like the location and view. My most recent meals there have not been the knock-outs that you seem to have had. Of the two most recent, one was pretty good and the other was very good. There were service slip-ups one one visit. I had very good to excellent pastas both times, but the dishes that were not pastas were fine but not special.
HIDDEN GEMS, FROM SILVER SPRING TO HYATTSVILLE?:
Thanks for the recommendation on Taqueria el Mexicano.
I had the mole and thought it was really tasty (although I’d argue some about the value, considering it had just two small pieces of chicken that did not look as hearty as those pictured with the review).
Do you have any other hidden gems in the say, Silver Spring to Hyattsville corridor? I know people who think the desirable restaurants end at the District line (or, ugh, further west in Potomac/Bethesda) and I’m sure we’re missing out by ignoring the local spots as well as the swath to the east of us.
That’s a pretty big swath of area you’re asking about, Silver Spring to Hyattsville, but I know it very well — both as a resident and as a critic.
In Silver Spring: Mandalay for Burmese, Nainai’s Noodles & Dumplings for Chinese noodle bowls, Fenton Cafe for sweet and savory crepes, La Casita for carne asada and pupusas.
In Hyattsville: Cafe Azul for arepas (ask for them griddled and stuffed with black beans and Venezuelan cheese), Shagga for lattes and Ethiopian cooking, Spice 6 for Chipotle-style Indian rice-and-gravy bowls, La Fondita for Mexican (order the lamb by the pound, with tortillas, rice and beans, and salsas).
In College Park, Ovo for good vegan cooking (I like their mushroom protein in green curry, with brown rice on the side).
Hope that helps. Report back about your meals …
FOLLOWING-UP FROM LAST WEEK: SEASONAL PANTRY:
If you can stand one more Seasonal Pantry comment, I’ve been there a couple times, and I definitely expected Dan to be there. And he was. Yes, everyone needs a vacation, but Seasonal Pantry already has a couple days a week where it’s closed.
But if he sets expectations, I think it’s okay for Dan to leave the cooking to his team. I believe that he should schedule these things in advance and provide clear notice when purchasing tickets online on any day he won’t be in the kitchen. Or, if he decides to take a last-minute vacation, the people who have purchased tickets should be offered the chance to exchange them for another date, or get a full refund.
That all sounds reasonable to me.
Thanks for writing in.
And I never mind continuing a conversation from week to week or even week to week to week. If we have things to talk about, we need a chance to talk about them.
One thing we didn’t talk about last week and that I want to get into now was this idea of going out to dinner with people you don’t know. Yes, you can book the table at Seasonal Pantry for you and your friends, but a lot of people are going to go as a couple or maybe as a foursome with another couple.
Do you like dining this way? And why? Or why not?
Do you see it, as I do, as different from communal dining at a bar or even at some restaurants, where people show up randomly, i.e., where not everybody arrives with the same purpose? Or do you see it as not different at all?
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
Just a quick follow-up to my previous comment that mentioned offering a reschedule/full refund if Dan’s not there — interaction with Dan was absolutely a big positive part of my experiences there.
Knowing that there’s risk that he’ll not be there, without knowing that in advance, means there’s a very good chance I’ll never attend again. It’s all about setting expectations, and yes, a website that says Daniel O’Brien cooks for you sets a certain expectation.
Even if it only happened once?
Does the fact it happened once mean that there’s a good chance it happens again?
Just asking …
Regardless, I think it’s pretty clear that the people on this chat have spoken: Seasonal Pantry is not in the category of restaurants, it’s in the category of “experiences.” Different rules apply.
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
Agree with the poster. If you, Todd Kliman, invite me to dinner at your house, that you were cooking, I’d expect you to be there, and I’d expect you to be cooking!
This is not like going to McDonalds and expecting Ronald himself to be making the burgers. This is a special experience and is billed as such. They didn’t get what they paid for.
That’d be funny — to invite you to my house and then not only not do I not do the cooking but I’m even be there! I slip on out the back the moment you walk through the door …
I don’t think these are equivalent cases. Chef O’Brien isn’t inviting anyone over. It’s not some sort of bait-and-switch.
But I agree that it’s not what the diners believed themselves to be getting — a night at a chef’s table, with the chef presiding.
I’ve always been curious to know why a night like this is so appealing to some diners. Is it that the chef is not only cooking for you, which you can have if you’re sitting in the dining room, but hosting you and interacting with you? And what is it about that hosting/interacting that makes it special? Is there an element, here, of the story, of being able to tell friends and acquaintances — hey, guess what I did, guess where I was?
Is there anything equivalent in other cultural fields?
Is going to a reading to hear an author read from his or her novel a comparable thrill? Or just something to do?
CHEF ABSENTEEISM, CONT.:
On Chefs being absent: I went to DBGB after about a month of its opening, and after Daniel Boulud had left. It was unimpressive and missing a number of beats. Then I went back couple months ago when everything had come together and the food was at the quality one expects from a chef of that caliber, but still seemed to lack soul or umph.
Then I went about a month ago and the food was passionate and zippy, everything was carefully thought out and placed, with flavors and textures dancing in harmony. It was clear to me that someone in the kitchen was doing more than “cooking.”
I asked, and it turned out that Exec Chef was off that night, so the Sous Chef was putting his talent out. The dishes and the menu were the same, but the performance was very different, which I made sure to applaud and send compliments to.
This also showed me the difference between a “chef” and a “cook” even though the person may not be at the helm of the decision making, his performance told me he’s got something going on.
So, sometimes, when the chef is not in, you may get something better, this, of course depends heavily on the person and the place, so I look at it as one of the many serendipitous experiences in eating, and look forward to finding them 🙂
That’s a good point.
Sometimes, it’s the case. Some places are blessed to have a lot of talent on hand.
But what’s so interesting about what we’re talking about is that we’re not talking about the quality of the cooking. We’re talking about expectations, we’re talking about the selling and/or hyping of the night out, we’re talking about being shown something special and different and therefore (it’s assumed) better, we’re talking about a kind of celebrification that (supposedly) makes dinner more than dinner.
I have a sense that the original question-asker could have had a great meal and still come on and posted here, because the disappointment had to do with the experience being different from he or she had been led to believe.
We are doing the sushi omakase at Sushi Capitol tonight to celebrate hub’s birthday. I’m excited. Any tips or must tries/must requests? Or just go with the chef’s flow? I hope we hit it on a good night.
Also, what should we order to drink?
Get a wheat beer — crisp and refreshing on a day like this, and it’ll also go well with your meal. I’m forgetting at the moment the brand they carry.
And as for must tries, it’s an omakase, so you’re locked into what chef Ogawa wants to serve you (“locked into” is not a pejorative, here; you want to be locked into what he wants to serve you). You can make a request, however, and it might be honored.
If you’re sitting at the sushi bar, I’d ask for a handroll or two. I’ve had great ones here. But you have to eat them immediately. Literally, the moment you receive them. You don’t want to lose the crunch of the paper. If the server has to collect your handroll from the sushi bar and deliver it to your table, you’re already losing some of that crunch; sitting at the sushi bar cuts down on precious seconds elapsing.
You could also just ask for handrolls as a supplement. Another possible supplement: the excellent Florida roll, which is both warm and cool, blowtorched and raw. If they have uni in (i.e., sea urchin), and it’s from Santa Barbara, and you can afford it, I’d definitely go uni as a supplement.
Have a great time. Wish your husband a happy birthday from me, and report back on your meal, please …
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
Is there something comparable in other cultural fields? I would say yes.
The NBA fines teams ($250k for the Spurs, to name one) for sitting players so they can rest because the commissioner knows that the fans are being denied an experience. (But, the critics contend, it doesn’t matter that Tony Parker and Tim Duncan sat – you still got to see NBA basketball.)
I don’t think anyone is happy (except their parents) when they see a play where the understudy plays the lead instead of the Tony winning actress – especially if it’s New York prices and they had to plan months in advance to see the show.
Does anyone but you answer the Kliman Online questions? Would you let them? if you did, would you specifically identify that that answer came from someone else? I’m guessing you would.
Thanks for chiming in …
Is that what the critics contend with regard to the Spurs? I thought it was essentially a libertarian sort of argument they tend to make — who is the NBA to tell coach Popovich how to do his job?
When I asked about anything out there being comparable, I meant — is there another cultural “experience” that is perceived to be enhanced because the “maker” is on hand to create it/present it, etc.
I’m not saying an author reading is the same as a night at a chef’s table. It just popped into my head. I don’t think most people perceive a novelist reading from his or her work as enhancement (“most people,” of course, has to be put in context; “most people” don’t read for pleasure; of the very, very people who do read for pleasure, very, very, very, very few read the kind of work that I’m talking about.)
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
Well, there’s always risk that a communal dinner can be destroyed by a dominant unpleasant guest. But on the whole, I definitely view communal tables such as Seasonal Pantry as something worth pursuing because of its positive potential, with vastly different expectations from a bar experience.
On the first point, those willing to drop a sizable chunk of money on a dinner like that are hopefully/probably going to be passionate about food. And, especially if one’s friends are not the type who would drop that kind of money on Seasonal Pantry et al., there’s something to be said about discussing food with like-minded people. I also tend to think that those willing to go to that sort of dinner might be a little more adventurous than the average diner, and that can also make for good conversation.
As far as bars go, I feel like there’s less of a unifying purpose, and less of an expectation of conversing with your table/barmates. And of course, you’re likely eating/drinking something different than those next to you, so, barring sharing, you can’t bond over a common dish. Not to say that it can’t be an equally-good, or better experience, but the chances seem lower because of those initial barriers.
And finally, it must be noted that surely some of Seasonal Pantry’s business comes from Top Chef fans who want to meet and talk to a guy who was on TV, met the judges, etc. That’s not me, but if it were, that would be another extremely disappointing aspect of showing up and finding that the person you wanted to meet isn’t there.
I would guess that that’s a good bit of it for people who go to places where the chef has been on TV — the sense of “certification” that Walker Percy talked about with actors.
As for communal tables, I think you convey both the good and the bad. I’ve experienced both. Personally, my better experiences have come from randomly derived arrangements, and not from mediated arrangements like the ones at Seasonal Pantry.
I would think that if you could buy out the table with your own people, then it would be a better night. But that’s a different kind of night, isn’t it? Not communal at all.
I can see where the idea of talking to seemingly like-minded diners would be appealing. On the other hand, maybe the other diners are there because they want to be certified, or because they enjoy good food as an expression of the good life but don’t really know anything about it. The three most recent experiences I had — and they were not all that recent, come to think of it — were meals with folks who were more in line with what I mention above.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: SMOKEHOUSE LIVE, IN LEESBURG:
I had heard about Smokehouse Live from various publications as the opening date for Smokehouse Live neared. After they had been open for a few weeks, I gathered a few friends and we headed down to Leesburg to try it out. I went to the place thinking I would hate it because of the size of the place (I believe it is over 10,000 sq feet) and just thought a bbq place in the middle of a shopping center. I was wrong.
My dinner companions and I were surprised by the quality of the brisket. It had a very nice smoke ring, the right amount of pull for brisket and was moist and juicy. It did not really need any sauce. The brisket in my opinion might be one better offerings in the DMV. Of course I still place DCity Smokehouse as #1. We also grabbed about two pounds of beef short rib, which were vanquished by the hungry group and again surprised by the overall quality of the short rib.
On our second visit we re-visited the some of the same cast of characters, the brisket and short rib. We also tried the chicken, which was juicy and had a nice smoke to it, not over powering.
I did like how they had picnic tables set up, reminded me of my early childhood growing up in the midwest. Service on both occasions was shaky at best but the servers are mostly there to get you drinks and process your check at the end. Diners walk up to the carving area to get their proteins and sides.
Smokehouse live is a welcome addition to the Northern VA bbq scene.
It’s been on my radar. I’m eager to go and have a taste. And a listen.
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
If its that important and the restaurant is known for when Chef “Big 12in Chef Knife” is cooking then call the day of your reservation and ask who is cooking that evening and then before you are seated. I always call my favorite Panamanian and Cantonese restaurants to make sure mom is cooking.
You’re not understanding.
You buy tickets to this. You can’t just show up, decide you don’t want to stay when it turns out the chef isn’t there, and walk without consequence.
Thanks for all the questions and discussion, everyone. I appreciate it. So interesting to see that this SP post has touched such a nerve …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …[missing you, TEK … ]