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 RESTAURANTS IN ROCKVILLE:
I was surprised to see your response to the question about your go-to for Chinese in Rockville as China Bistro.
I fully expected your response to be Peter Chang’s new restaurant, as you used to such a fan of his food. Are you finding his newest spot lacking in some way?
Oh, still high on PC himself.
A tremendous cook.
The restaurants under his name, now, are not up to the level of magic I had come to think was almost routine with him (when, not surprisingly, he had only one or two places).
That’s a high bar, admittedly. But it’s a little hard sometimes for those of us who remember how it was back when. How light the frying was, and how crisp. How elegant and controlled so much of the cooking was, even as it was roiling with chili heat. Etc., etc.
How does it stack up against the rest of Rockville’s Chinatown? Very, very favorably.
Which says more about what he was doing, before, than what he is doing now …
Good morning, everyone. Tell me what you’ve been up to, what you’ve been eating, what you’ve been cooking, what sorts of food adventures you’ve been having …
SEASONAL PANTRY, CONT.:
I know you reached out to Dan O’Brien a couple weeks back. Would it be possible to see if he has any additional comments now that your chat public has spoken?
I could do that.
But Chef O’Brien made it pretty clear to me when we spoke that he was not interested in responding via words on a page or screen, and I kind of doubt that that’s changed.
I respect that.
THE NEW OTHERWISE :
I’ve been thinking about your most recent “Otherwise” column recommending that diners stick to the high and low and leave out the middle when it comes to dining out. As I consider money spent at mediocre chain restaurants or even those one step up, I think it’s great advice..
But then I started further trying to understand what you are referring to as upper middle- does this include places like Osteria Morini, Kapnos, Mintwood, etc? I don’t think those are restaurants that should be avoided – far from it.
Can you help further define the middle, and perhaps some of the places along 14th Street that you would deem worthy of spending money- since you point out that this is an area full of places to avoid? The more I think about it, the less I agree with you.
The restaurants you named are (or were, at the time we completed the 100 Best Restaurants issue and ranked the top 100) 3 of the 33 best restaurants in the entire region. 3 of the 33 best, out of thousands upon thousands.
Also, the piece isn’t saying to avoid restaurants in the middle because they’re all no good. Some of them are good, or are good for certain things (certain dishes, say), or are good occasionally but just not consistently. It’s saying that they’re not, generally, good investments if you’re interested in finding thrills on the plate.
There are many, many people out there — most people, actually — who are not concerned with thrills on the plate. They want a nice meal out, with friends, or with a girlfriend or boyfriend or husband or wife.
You mentioned Morini. I don’t want to pile on to the place, because I was a little critical last week. And I do like it. But as I mentioned in response to a chatter’s question, my most recent meal there was very uneven, with some service lapses. There were also a couple of highs. I told the two diners I was with that it was not what I had been expecting, given the wonderful meal I’d had maybe a month earlier. They came away underwhelmed, particularly considering the high cost.
I doubt they’d consider going back for an occasion, unless I were to work some magic on them.
There are no sure things; we all know that. But the elite high-end restaurants are much nearer to sure things, and so are the elite low-end restaurants.
If we’re placing bets, that’s where I’d place mine.
BRISKET, AND A S/O TO KAPNOS TAVERNA IN ARLINGTON:
A good brisket should never need sauce 😉 I’ve never had short ribs at a bbq place because I have been spoiled by my MIL kalbi recipe and can’t imagine them any other way.
A shout out to Kapno’s Taverna where we had a great meal post Book of Mormon at the bar for happy hour. I will never tire of that fried eggplant dish.
As I think I mentioned a few weeks ago, my most recent meal there was excellent. The potatoes with Greek Island sauce and the lamb gyro, in particular, but everything (well, almost everything; one dish was middling) had pop and depth.
Will you share your mother-in-law’s kalbi recipe with us? I think you kind of have to, now. 🙂
ELITE HIGH AND ELITE LOW, CONT.:
This notion of elite high-end and elite-low end that you mentioned in Otherwise is quite useful and makes a lot of sense to me.
As other posters have mentioned though, it’s a struggle for an occasional eater-out (probably 2 times a week) to determine which restaurants fit into this category. As a food critic, you’ve seen it all and so can quickly filter restaurants based on past experience, but what to do when you don’t have that baseline? Should we be using critics? Yelp? word of mouth? a combination?
For one thing, would you say that we should be eating off the Top 100 & the Cheap Eats guide (I for one would definitely advocate this with my husband 🙂
I would say that, yes. 🙂
You mentioned that you go out twice a week; so, four times every two weeks. Probably, I’m guessing, about $300-$350 spent on those visits.
To go elite high and elite low, you’d have three of those meals at the elite low end, leaving around $200 left for a restaurant that has proven itself and truly rewards your investment of time and money.
This is how I used to allocate my dining out money, before I became a critic, and my years on the job have only reinforced for me that this is the smart way for a budget-minded diner to spend his or her money.
Because it’s corn season, I was hoping that you could help us solve a corn recipe mystery.
A friend is hosting a corn celebration dinner “Cornapalooza” and I was hoping to deconstruct the recipe for the ” street corn” from Farmers Fishers Bakers, which is by far the best corn accompaniment that we’ve ever tasted. Would you be able to provide us with recipe guidance?
Thank you very much.
We can certainly put out a call.
YO, FARMERS FISHERS BAKERS: PLEASE SEND ALONG YOUR “STREET CORN” RECIPE!
Stay tuned …
Very disappointed in a delivery order from Katz. Worst of all they forgot the rye bread!!!! And the pastrami was boring and lacked flavor. Can you recommend some palce else for good pastrami delivered. Katz’s pastrami was better than DGS though. So awaiting your recommendations.. TIA
Does anybody know whether Schwartz’s in Montreal does FedEx deliveries?
Or any of the other smoked meat places in the city?
My husband and I went to Toronto and Montreal the week of the 4th,and ate very well in both cities.
On Thursday morning, we went to the St. Viateur Cafe in Mont Royal for a sit-down breakfast of bagels with schmears. They were very good. Then, because we’re the sort of people who read your chats, we walked over to Fairmount Bagel in Mile End, and each purchased a still-warm bagel to eat on a bench outside. My husband has long insisted that the bagel he had from Fairmount 25 or so years ago was the best he’d ever had. Apparently he found his memory vindicated.
As for me, I definitely preferred the Fairmount bagel, which was outstanding. But I’m not entirely convinced that I don’t like New York style bagels more than Montreal.
Still, a very fun way to spend a morning.
I gotta say, I’m with your husband on this.
Fairmount is pretty amazing, especially when you can get a bagel that’s fresh baked.
I will say, though, that the New York style, of topping a bagel with cream cheese and lox and onion and tomato, is probably more to my personal taste than the relative austerity of the Montreal style.
I love it that you went to both St. Viateur and Fairmount back to back. My kind of people!
What would Louis C.K. call that, a bagel bang-bang?
My husband just ate at Schwartz’s a couple of weeks ago on a trip to Quebec. The business card he brought back includes the information: “We package our orders for long or short distance trips,” right above information about catering services, so it might be worth a try.
Wonderful. Thank you.
So who among us is going to take the chance and put in an order and find out whether the to-go version holds up? 🙂
By the way, I love the official name for Schwartz’s. It might be my favorite restaurant name in North America:
Chez Schwartz Charcuterie Hébraïque de Montréal.
How great is that?
DINING IN CHEVY CHASE:
Hey Todd – I just moved from 14th Street up to Chevy Chase DC with my family. Are there any great restaurants up this way? I haven’t found one yet.
And if not, why?
I haven’t found a great one, either.
You ask why not. We could also ask: Why?
Is it because CCDC is so wealthy?
Well, Bethesda has no restaurants that I would call “great.” Nor does McLean.
I don’t have an answer as to why there aren’t more interesting or ambitious restaurants (to get to great, you first have to be interesting and ambitious, I think).
But the neighborhoods with interesting, ambitious restaurants (Barracks Row, Shaw, etc.) tend to be those in areas with Metro access, population density, interesting things to do beyond shopping, and a lot of young or youngish people.
Can Chevy Chase DC tick off any of those boxes? One?
Thanks for the back and forth today, everyone. I Gotta dash if I hope to make lunch, but I appreciate all the thoughtful questions and tips and comments. Thank you, as always …
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 … [missing you, TEK … ]