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.
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Is the chat happening today? I keep getting sent to the Feb 4th archive when trying to log in.
Happening, yes. Welcome. Ask away …
Good morning, everyone. What’s on your mind?
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: OSTERIA MORINI IN DC:
Hello Todd –
I follow your reports from the field and decided to give Morini a chance this weekend. I have to tell you that the service was supportive, attentive and left us with the question “when do we make our next reservation?”.
I have numerous challenges with food because of being allergic to many things – dairy, gluten and even corn bothers me. Communicating with the restaurant, they were prepared and had some interesting options for us. The restaurant has so much more to offer than just pasta in case you wanted my opinion.
And the icing on the cake (yes the pun was intended) was when the pastry chef stopped by after the server took our dessert order. He explained the chemistry behind the sorbet and that certain ingredients in it might have originated from corn. Before sending them out, he wanted to be sure that I would not get ill from it. I told him that the corn was just an irritant and that it should be fine. He came back out with the dessert and explained that he made sure to leave off the cookies that accompany the dessert because of the gluten and dairy issues in the cookies.
Between the overall service and that, you can expect we will return regularly. My husband loved the cookies that he had!
There you go.
Thanks for this.
I think that’s pretty special, that the pastry chef, Alex Levin, would come out and engage with you personally like that.
If that’s not going to make an impression — that, and the high quality of the sweets in general — I don’t know what will.
A SUMPTUOUS STAYCATION:
My husband and I are about to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary in October. My parents, who live locally, have generously offered not just to take our two kids (6 and 2) on our first weekend away since they were born, but have gifted us with a two night stay at the Mayflower Hotel in DC. We don’t often get to eat out in DC nor eat out extravagantly, but since our hotel is taken care of, we will have a little more money to dedicate to trying new restaurants.
What would you recommend? We love all types of food, all cuisines, and my husband has a shellfish allergy.
Lucky you. That’s a wonderful gift. I hope you savor it.
I think Fiola Mare has got to be one of your reservations. Yes, there’s a lot of shellfish, but there’s also a lot of fish, so I assume we’re safe there. Pasta, too. I’d book now, to make sure you can get in. This is luxury dining, yes — with every bell and whistle that restaurants are inclined to pull out nowadays, in this more relaxed era — but I think it delivers. The quality of ingredients is spectacular, the cooking is imaginative and controlled, the staff well-versed
If you can swing two grand meals, I’d make the other one Komi. I think it’s as relaxed and sensual as a meal in DC gets, and you should feel borne away from your cares when it’s over, three-plus hours later. The roasted date — stuffed with mascarpone, sprinkled with Maldon salt, roasted slowly and carefully and given a light saucing at the end in the form of a drizzle of good olive oil — remains one of my favorite dishes in all of DC.
I hope that helps.
And I hope you have a great and wonderful “getaway” weekend.
As we continue to eat more globally, we are confronted with dishes that are traditionally eaten in a certain way, of which many diners are unaware.
Just last week, I went to a Thai restaurant where the appetizer came on top of some inconspicuous leaves of lettuce. Lettuce wasn’t part of the menu description, and the appetizer seemed wholly contained on top. Only afterwards did I find out that I was meant to make a small sandwich with the lettuce.
Perhaps some of this has to do with learned assumptions about food. In America, roughage on the bottom of a plate is usually green decoration. In many Asian dishes, these same greens are often part of the preparation.
I can think of other examples, Asian dishes most readily come to mind, where the diner is expected to know the proper technique such as the sticky rice at Thip Khao which is meant to be pinched off and used as a tool for eating, and lettuce and Perilla leaves used for wrapping Korean barbecue (in fact, Honey Pig only brings out baskets of lettuce upon request, leaving uninitiated diners completely unaware).
Do restaurants have a responsibility to instruct diners in the proper techniques of eating particular dishes, or should diners be expected to research cuisines to make sure they are doing it “right”? Further, why do you think many restaurants don’t seem very interested in proactively providing this sort of knowledge?
I don’t think places have a “responsibility,” but I do think it’s in their interests to have a server explain what a dish is and how it’s eaten.
But let’s talk, now, about the kinds of places we’re talking about. We’re talking about cross-over places, either because they made an effort to stretch their reach beyond that of their culture or because the wider culture has discovered them.
These places are, in many ways, teaching people about a cuisine. And this is, let’s face it, a big part of the appeal for many diners, beyond the merits of the food — something to become conversant in, something to talk about, something to certify oneself as unique. (That certification of uniqueness used to happen with things like books and films. Now that no one really reads and even small films can go mainstream, it happens with food.)
What about places that have no interest in playing to wider audiences? In that case, they are serving dishes that their people already know, and there is no need to act as translator.
It might be that what you’re seeing — and I’ve seen it, too — is places that have made a decision to be cross-over without also making the concessions that used to go along with cross-over. I think that’s the case at Thip Khao. It’s saying, in effect — and I wrote this in my review — You want authentic? Ok, well this is authentic. No translation, no teaching, no meeting halfway.
INEXPENSIVE TO MODERATE DINING TO TAKE AN OUT-OF-TOWN FRIEND?:
I’ll be taking an out-of-town friend to dinner in a few weeks, and would love to show him what our city has to offer. Do you have a recommendation for an inexpensive-to-moderate place, in or near downtown, that takes reservations?
I was thinking Rasika, Birch & Barley, or Pearl Dive – do you have any other suggestions?
I don’t think Rasika or Birch & Barley are inexpensive to moderate. Pearl Dive I would say is moderate — but not inexpensive to moderate.
What about Izakaya Seki, on V? Excellent sashimi, simple grilled and fried items, and sakes.
I had a good recent meal at Zaytinya, which, if you don’t indulge, can fall within the constraints of inexpensive-to-moderate. If you go, get the fried blue catfish with skordalia.
We’re trying to find a location for a romantic celebration and I’m having trouble finding a tasting menu. There are many wonderful new chefs and restaurants that interest me but the trend seems to be more casual now.
In addition to Komi, Minibar, Rogue 24, Fiola, and The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm, what are the best tasting menus in town right now that also provide an intimate environment?
Of course, we tried to snag a Roses’s Luxury Rooftop reservation as well but failed to secure one. What other venues am I missing?
What other venues?
What about Corduroy, Marcel’s, The Oval Room, Kapnos, Iron Gate, Proof, Rasika, Obelisk, Sushi Capitol, and the new Masseria?
Of course, I just made your task that much harder. But there’s no shortage of tasting menus out there, and you should be able to find a good one from this now-widened list.
If you want super luxurious, then you really do want Marcel’s.
If you want quietude and less cost than Marcel’s, then you might think about Corduroy.
Something new and trendy and also intimate? Masseria.
Proven, cozy, delicious, still trendy, not too expensive? Proof.
Anyway, just some guidance …
Let me know which way you turn, and how things turned out.
EDUCATING DINERS, CONT.:
I think places do have an obligation (probably too strong a word) to educate diners, especially if they ask.
A few years ago a former coworker and I went to lunch at an Ethiopian place near our new offices. It was a buffet style lunch place and we were the first ones there. We loaded up our plates with various spoonful’s from the buffet and each grabbed a piece of the flat bread they had (I think this has a name, but I don’t know what it is! – – – it was thin and large, almost the size of the plate). Anyhow, being newbies, we asked the server how to properly eat the meal and she said, “Any way you like”. That was nice, but not the answer we were hoping for.
It was only after other people started eating that we learned we were supposed use the bread as a little “mitt” to pick up the other items on the plate and not make a roll up!
I really want to try new things and new places, but I want to do it right!
Thanks for chiming in …
One of the complications, here — and you alluded to it — is that a lot of immigrant-owned restaurants are reluctant to push for fear of not fitting in.
To tell the customer “any way you like” is to say, in effect, you, the customer, are always right. Whatever you want to do with our food or to our food — well, that is just fine with us. We will not impose our ways on you.
More and more, now, diners want to be imposed upon in this way. They want to learn. They want to eat the way people in the culture eat.
I don’t have numbers. It’s probably not the majority, still. But just from what I have seen, and heard, I would guess that it’s a larger percentage than it’s ever been. And especially in pockets of big urban centers.
It’s still a risk, though, for the restaurant. The risk of alienating the American diner. The risk of being too obscure and different and therefore inaccessible to mainstream tastes.
You and I had an exchange about this on Twitter a while back (I say “you,” because I saw your email address on the question page). I was in a restaurant about a year ago, an Ethiopian restaurant, and a table of five was eating lunch. The five were not Ethiopian. They belonged to another immigrant group — probably Indian. They did not want their wots and stews served on and with injera (that’s the name of the flatbread, by the way), and asked for rice.
Well, the restaurant must have had this request before, because fifteen minutes later out came the wots and stews spooned atop steamed rice.
This was a version of what you wrote to me about above — the restaurant saying, in effect, “any way you like.”
I take a dim view of this kind of behavior, I admit. A dim view of the behavior of the patrons, let me clarify. Why ask a restaurant to alter its food to resemble more closely the dishes you grew up and eat routinely? Why not try to engage with the food the way the culture itself engages with it and experience something new? Why not not just go to a restaurant that serves curries over rice? It’s not as if we live in an area that is short on the cuisines of other parts of the world.
People do this all the time. They go to France and eat at McDonald’s. I have a friend I traveled with to New Orleans a few years ago, and he insisted on hitting a Starbucks every day rather than trying an independent coffee spot in the city — there was one blended drink he liked, and that was the only thing he liked about Starbucks, but (he said) he couldn’t get that at the other places, he’d tried; Starbucks gave him the known quantity, and that was satisfying.
I think there’s a distinction to be made, here — and it applies, I think, to food as well — between the traveler and the tourist. The tourist sees what he or she is supposed to see, what is talked about and sanctioned. The tourist eats where he or she is told, stays where he or she is told, etc. Follows guidebooks, listens to the usual organs of information. Everything is outer directed. The traveler is immersive. The traveler wants to get lost — if not literally, then at least figuratively. The traveler talks to people on the street, alert to tips, alive to being pulled off script; actually, for many travelers, there is no script, or only the barest bones of one. The traveler explores, and heeds the inner dictates: what interests me? what makes me feel alive? what smells good?
EDUCATING DINERS, CONT.:
If you’re uncertain about how to eat a dish, ask the server. If the server dropped off your dish quickly, then look around to make eye contact with another staff member and ask them.
There is no shame in politely stating, “I’m sorry but I’ve never ordered this dish before. Do I eat it this with the lettuce or is it only a garnish?”
I’ve asked that question many times before at Four Sisters and Minh’s Restaurant. Pending on the dish, the answer varies.
Also I love ordering the specials at Izakaya Seki but I’m usually clueless about how to eat them. I simply state, “This is my first time eating this dish. Would you mind explaining it to me please?”
Sometime the answer is as simple as “pick it up with your hands” but the servers are always polite when sharing the answer. I’ve encountered nothing but kind responses when I’ve asked questions. Wouldn’t it be more condescending if a server assumed that you didn’t know how to eat a dish by your appearance?
It could be.
It doesn’t have to be.
And you’re so right in saying “I’m sorry but I’ve never ordered this dish before” and asking for a little guidance. Most places are only too happy to help — assuming the server understands your meaning.
But back to condescension …
I think more of these kinds of places are erring, now, on the side of not telling at the start.
The place that made a point of “translating” for diners — and, presumably, built such a large and loyal following because of it — was Four Sisters, back when it was in the Eden Center. Four Sisters decided to separate itself from a very competitive pack by emphasizing education and guidance at the table. It went a long way with a lot of people.
But it’s a different era now. People who go to so-called ethnic restaurant are generally more versed than they were twenty years ago. They start with a higher baseline of knowledge.
EDUCATING DINERS, CONT.:
Let’s be a little fair to Thip Khao, which has a graphic on the back of the menu showing the steps in eating the rice from the thip khao with your meal! Why my husband and I were in there in August, the waitress asked if we’d eaten there before. We replied that we hadn’t, but that we’d had the Lao menu at Bangkok Golden. My guess is that she would have made more of an effort to explain the how-to if we were straight-on newbies.
I think there’s a delicate balance between when to give instructions on dining. Some people just want to eat the way they like to! My husband hates creating his own lettuce wraps (he’d much rather eat nam khao with a fork!) and gets annoyed when he feels “lectured” about how to eat his dish. And I have a friend who, while waiting for carry out with me at a Thai joint, insisted she needed chopsticks. I’ve been to Thailand and I’ve got Thai friends, and when I pointed out that a native would be using a fork and spoon, she just laughed and said “I use chopsticks for all Asian food.”
I’m not sure what the answer is that will keep everyone happy (and coming back!)
No, you’re very right about that.
And you bring up a lot of good examples that complicate the picture.
Thanks for chiming in …
And as for Thip Khao — it has those illustrated instructions, yes, but there’s nothing to tell diners to use the leaves of lettuce in certain dishes as a wrap. And, in my experience at least, servers didn’t think to tell the table.
I know people who’ve been to Rice Paper and ordered the grilled stuffed grape leaves and thought it was only an okay dish. The server had brought out a holder of rice paper and water, but had not bothered to tell the table what to do with them, or the fact that the bundles are meant to be wrapped in them, along with pickled daikon and carrot and mint, then dipped in sauce.
Many dishes there and at other Vietnamese restaurants, too, are served with heaping plates of lettuce and herbs, and yet I see people all the time ignoring the greens and gorging on the meats. Do they do this because they only want the meat? Possibly. But possibly they only do it because no one has thought to tell them how to bundle the meats the way Vietnamese diners do.
So, to return again to this notion of condescension the previous chatter brought up …
Is it condescending to instruct and guide the diners at the table?
Personally, I’m not sure it is. The in-the-know diners can always say, yeah, we’ve been here before, but thanks, or — we’ve been eating Vietnamese food for years, we know all about it; we appreciate your offer of help — or something along those lines. And all the rest can say, huh, thanks for taking the time to show us the way.
EDUCATING DINERS, CONT.:
Yes, we had a dustup over the family eating wrong, and you blocked me from following you on twitter!!!
Can you unblock me now?
I promise to be good!
And you don’t need to promise to be good. Just remember that you don’t need to raise your tone to make yourself heard.
The place gets exhausting sometimes. It’s a good thing it’s online and not an actual, physical space — I wouldn’t want to live there …
And just to clarify, for those who are just reading along now: it wasn’t about a “family eating wrong.” It was a group of friends. And if I remember correctly, I was being sarcastic at their reluctance to “armchair travel” — i.e., to go to another place, as it were, and meet it on its terms.
Gotta run, everyone. Thanks for joining in and reading along. I appreciate it.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]