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.
SEAFOOD IN ANNAPOLIS:
I have the fortune of being in Annapolis for brunch/lunch on Sunday. I’m thinking crabs or otherwise great seafood. Cantler’s comes to mind – is there anywhere else I should consider?
Cantler’s is great, and if you can get in without much of a wait, you should do it.
I haven’t been to Wild Country Seafood, in Eastport, in a while, but I enjoyed it a lot when I went: the soft shells in particular, dredged from nearby waters that morning. A colleague reported a pretty good but not wonderful recent experience, and a thicker crusting on the soft shell, so there’s that.
The Pointe is lively and has a great view, and may be great for picking crab — I don’t know; the other food I had was very middling.
LOCAL VS. OTHER:
Can you delve a little into your Otherwise column about the taste of local ingredients? I agree with those who commented on the story that it didn’t seem like the chef was doing this scientifically by adding more butter to the “inferior” corn and brining only some of the chickens, as well as adding more butter and salt to the skin.
Chef X said he wanted to level the playing field, but for the purposes of this demonstration, shouldn’t everything have been prepared equally to truly let the ingredients (as inferior or superior as they may be) shine?
The experiment changed when the chef began to make adjustments. If you notice, the column takes a very clear pivot at this point: the experiment is not the experiment anymore.
That’s what interested me. That pivot.
The column was meant not to show who “wins” among Whole Foods, a farmers market, and a grocery store. It was meant to show what a good chef can do with ingredients that are less-than. That was why the column concludes not with the experiment that was upended by the chef, but with the cooking demo with the Indian chef, wherein he shows how wonderful a meal can be made with cheap, canned, boxed, frozen ingredients. In the final line of the column, he shrugs and says, “It’s cooking.”
(One of the ways I struggle with “social media” is that the desperate need to attract clicks means that pieces of writing sometimes get over-simplified or recast in tweets or headlines to the point that they say something other than what they are. This might have begun as a taste test, but what it ended up being, I think, is something more interesting, with larger implications.)
LE DIPLOMATE UPDATE:
I submitted the question about leftovers and was absolutely blown away by the super fast response from Mr. Washington from Le Diplomate.
He asked me to contact him and I wrote that I appreciated his willingness to engage on the issue, and just letting him know that my meal was really wonderful and the leftover issue was the only hiccup.
He followed up with a phone call, letting me know that he appreciated my feedback and that next time I visit Le Diplomate, I “may” have a glass of bubbly waiting for me.
It was amazing to get that type of response; restaurant managers should take note, that is how you keep customers coming back, especially with all the choices DC has to offer.
It tells you a lot.
Good for Le Dip.
Though I do think it should be pointed out that a restaurant at this level — with the immense resources it has — can do a thing like this in a way that a place like, say, Sally’s Middle Name cannot. Not to knock Le Dip. Just to point out that it’s the supposed little things like this that keep a place like Le Dip popular and packed.
THE HIGH COST OF DC:
We recently returned from a lengthy stay abroad for work. It took us to a number of big, European capitals — Paris, Brussels, London, Madrid, Amsterdam. While we sampled those city’s best eats, I kept coming back to the question: why is DC so expensive?
I think one example can illustrate this pretty well. At an average neighborhood bar in Paris, you can expect to pay 4 euros for a good beer on draft (think a cut above Kronenbourg or Heineken). Lower prices in Madrid, Brussels, Amsterdam.
Our neighborhood watering hole on Capitol Hill now charges $7 for anything above the Yuengling zone. This is not a place that puts much effort into decor, not a place that takes beer “seriously,” not a destination place. Beer is produced locally on the macro and micro scale in all of these places.
Do you have a sense of why that is? Is it simply because they can?
I wonder the same about farmer’s markets, where prices are roughly the same for a kilo in Europe as they are for a pound here (and don’t get me started on fresh fish).
Other considerations seem to make the difference even more glaring: fuel is much cheaper here and establishments generally pay their employees even less, counting on the customer to take care of them through tips. Very curious to hear your perspective on this.
It’s a great question, and unfortunately I don’t have a great answer, only some thoughts that are hang-at-a-bar-and-let-fly thoughts (but not a DC bar, where everything must be considered and worked through with logic and reason) and not fit for a forum like this.
I do think, though, that London is incredibly expensive, much more expensive even than here. And the best dining in Paris is much, much, much more expensive than the best dining here.
I agree with you about things like beer and the markets and the cost of fish. Really high here. And the markets (except the upper-echelon markets) are generally not at the level of most markets in other cities abroad (they’re also more expensive).
Any one have any thoughts on this?
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: OSTERIA MORINI:
Hi Todd –
On the topic of Osteria Morini in the waterfront, I wanted to write you a quick note. My friends and I went there pre-concert on Friday this past week. Superb experience, and I know that there had been a couple of good and mixed experiences that you wrote about a few weeks ago.
The place was jamming – great vibe. But in our area, the service was attentive, the pastas were delicious, and the desserts were OMG good. So good in fact that we went back to the bar post-concert and had a couple of other sweets before heading back to NW DC. I love that bar area, and I would be very happy just chilling over by there.
I think part of the fun was being with a larger group because we could have more and share. But it was great – all around. Wanted to share with you.
Thanks for the report.
I notice that the only food you talk about are the pastas and the desserts, both of which, by the way, I singled out for praise a few weeks ago, while also pointing out some of the weaker aspects of my recent experiences.
LOCAL AND OTHER, CONT.:
I found your column the “old-fashioned” way, by checking Washingtonian’s site on Tuesday afternoon to find it to read. I read it and walked away with that conclusion on my own, and I checked back later to see the comments agreeing with my takeaway. I guess then, if the point that the cooking is what truly matters, then why didn’t he doctor up the ingredients equally? Adding lots of butter, brining the chicken, etc. should theoretically let the farmers market ingredients shine best as well and then the tasters would possibly have been able to select that set of ingredients.
What you did with in the Indian chef was interesting in taking very ordinary ingredients and turning them into a fantastic meal, which I don’t doubt nearly any chef worth his or her salt could do. And certainly Patrick O’Connell is not cooking with freezer burned meat these days and hasn’t in years. If he started offering that at the Inn, surely diners would be able to tell if they’d had the same dish before with superior ingredients.
You’d have to ask the chef why he didn’t. My sense of why he didn’t is that the grocery store ingredients needed the help, badly, and so, too, did the Whole Foods, though to a somewhat lesser degree. The farmers’ market ingredients he decided to let, in the parlance, speak for themselves a bit more.
This is the m.o. of local, seasonal cooking — to not get in the way, as they say, of the raw materials, to use minimal enhancements so as to allow the natural flavors to come through.
Chef X felt that handling the farmers’ market ingredients with a light touch was what showcased them best.
Yet the four panelists — three foodies among them — preferred the much more doctored plate made with ingredients from Whole Foods.
I find that fascinating, and telling.
LEFTOVERS, CONT. FROM LAST WEEK:
Leftovers: I can see the argument for either case. Would it not be OK to ask “would you like me to wrap them up for you or would you like me to bring you a box so you can?”
I personally would like to box them up myself in general -as I do want every bit of the sauce- but it may not always be appropriate if I am entertaining a client or eating at a fancy place for example.
And I think that’s a good way to go about it, for servers to offer you, the diner, the choice. I like that.
Some do; most don’t.
Heading up to NYC for a late babymoon. Any recommendations? The only thing we have planned with certainty is Peter Lugers for lunch on Saturday.
I really like the new Rebelle, with a chef, Daniel Eddy, from the much-acclaimed Spring, in Paris. Amazing wine list, too.
Next door: Pearl & Ash, which is wonderful.
I also like Estelle, which has been much pumped-up in the pro and amateur press.
Oh, and Uncle Boon’s — fabulous. Get the crab fried rice, at least.
A RESTAURANT WITH A KNOWLEDGEABLE STAFF:
I’m looking for a restaurant with a knowledgable staff.
My friend, who is super into wine will be visiting. Last time we went to Zatinya, and even though overall it was a great meal and everyone was friendly, our bartender and cocktail server couldn’t give us much info about the long list of Greek wines.
Yes — Proof, not far from Zaytinya as it happens.
A crackerjack staff, and particularly well-drilled in wine and cocktails. My last meal there was excellent all around, by the way — food, drink, service. Really good to see.
CHIMING IN: STEALTHILY IMPORTING FOODS, BARBEQUE PREFENCES, & FIRST-RATE SUSHI :
I’d never try to illegally import food into the country. Why knowingly violate rules designed to protect US agriculture, and why risk a hefty fine? Sounds a bit selfish. There are plenty of legal items available–I’ve brought back vinegar, spanish pimenton, etc., and those items last a long time.
As a native Texan, I agree with your comment that great BBQ doesn’t need sauce, and that plenty of sauces will enhance good cue. I’ve tasted many sauces that do the opposite. (For your survey, my preference is pork ribs, followed by brisket, followed by everything else).
One question: Is Sushi Capitol still your go-to spot for sushi? We live near Izakaya Blue Ocean, and their sushi can be outstanding, but my soon-to-be 18 year old daughter has requested a different spot.
Thanks as always.
Blue Ocean has its moments, definitely; and even when it doesn’t hit the highs, it’s still some of the finest workaday sushi out there.
Sushi Capitol is in a different category. And yes, I’m still very high on it.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: TAZZA KITCHEN, IN ARLINGTON:
My family (parents & two 9-year olds) recently visited Tazza Kitchen for the second time. The food hit the same standard as you mentioned in your review and we experienced on our first visit.
What I found most notable is that the number of changes in the menu so that it felt new again. It is frustrating to go to a restaurant after a few months and see virtually the same menu (I’m looking at you, Clyde’s).
Highlights for me were the arancini (fried risotto balls for those unfamiliar with the term) and the seasonal pasta. I think it may have been citarra, but combined with long beans, peaches and with a good spicy kick.
As I occasionally bike home along Four Mile Run, I plan on making it my regular happy hour pit stop.
That’s good to hear.
And impressive, also, considering the recent review. Sometimes places struggle in the wake of a lot of attention.
I’m glad to hear you had such a good time with your family. Thanks for writing in …
EDEN CENTER EATS:
What are your go to restaurants in the Eden Center?
Rice Paper and Huong Viet, both of which are on the outside, on the far left flank — otherwise known as the center’s “sidewalk stores.”
Hai Duong, inside Saigon West, just south of the sidewalk stores.
Banh Cuon Saigon, which is, if I remember correctly, inside Saigon West; go for the titular dish, with shrimp; good bun, too.
Nha Trang, in Saigon East.
And I like the coffee and smoothies and desserts at BAMBU, another sidewalk store.
Hope that helps. Let me know what you discover, okay?
KNOWLEDGEABLE STAFFS, CONT.:
Knowledgable staff: If your budget allows, I’d highly recommend Fiola Mare.
They have a very interesting list of cocktails, wines, scotch/bourbon and they take pride in offering you something different and will match your food, but based on your palate and interests. Even if the budget is limited, this experience can be had at the bar, where the bar manager Luca always finds something to please the palate and offer something interesting for those of us who have tasted a variety of wines and beverages.
I never leave thinking the experience was average, it’s always interesting, pleasant and memorable.
And actually, why stop there? We could probably list a dozen places, easy, with great and informed staffs. Marcel’s — what restaurant has a more experienced, more trained staff than this? Komi. The Inn. Casa Luca. Iron Gate. Rasika. Little Serow. Rose’s Luxury. Restaurant Eve. Central Michel Richard. Fiola.
With Proof, that’s 12. 😉
MUSHROOMS IN DISHES:
I love mushrooms but am consistently disappointed by their use in dishes in restaurants in the area. Can you think of any dishes that truly highlight the mushrooms without masking their flavors with either bacon or cream?
You bring up something interesting. It’s true, they’re often hidden, to the point that you wonder why use an ingredient if you’re only going to bury it.
The best use of mushrooms I’ve seen in a long time is in the ravioli dish on offer right now at Garrison, Rob Weland’s new spot on Barracks Row. It’s a nettle-and-ricotta stuffed ravioli, with roasted chanterelles, in a rich butter-and-herb sauce. The chanterelles actually help to lance some of the richness, which is not a role you tend to see assigned to mushrooms. Even more remarkable is their flavor — you can tell that a good bit of time has been taken to bring our their earthy depth, and to bring it out slowly and naturally.
KNOWLEDGEABLE STAFFS, CONT.:
Two more knowledgable places: If you’re looking for something casual and relaxing, Etto is a pleaser with interesting wines and ever-changing menu. It was the first place where I discovered Occhipinti – which happens to be a very special wine and wine maker from Sicily- as well as other interesting wines, and the bartenders are very knowledgable and willing to let you taste before you commit.
My second choice is Doi Moi also for a very interesting wine list (one of my favorites for the spicy food there happens to be from Uruguay!) and again, knowledgable bartenders who can direct you to the right wine you’re looking for. The cocktails can be a hit or miss there, but wine list is always interesting, and so is the food 🙂
Thanks for chiming in …
I really like Occhipinti wines, too. Any idea where I can find them in Maryland or DC?
Gotta wrap a little early today, everyone, sorry for cutting out on short notice … but thanks again for the questions and the observations and the reports from the field, and thanks to all of you who didn’t post anything but simply read along — thanks for just taking part in this every week.
If you need or want to reach me over the next week, drop me an email: email@example.com
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …[missing you, TEK …]