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: email@example.com
W H E R E T O E A T N O W . . . . . . .
Rob Weland’s cooking is thoughtful, meticulous, and often exquisitely rendered, and, in an age when so many menus read like mixtapes — eclectic and unified — the thematic coherence here is remarkable. It extends from the cooked-to-order poppy-seed gougeres to the desserts, among them a selection of stone fruits baked in parchment that puts you in mind of the kind of tossed-off-but-not-so-simple thing Martha Stewart might serve at a dinner party in the Hamptons. The dish to get: the tortellini, whose egg-rich wrappers are thin as tape.
The Riggsby, DC
The waiters wear vests. The tables are laid with white cloth. No rock or alternative on the soundtrack. Which is to say, a throwback place, summoning the spirit of Toots Shor, the iconic Manhattan saloon that catered to such drink-slinging swells of the ‘40s and ‘50s as Sinatra, DiMaggio and Gleason. The difference is, Michael Schlow’s The Riggsby trades on its food. The cooking emphasizes technique and coherence over novelty and flash, and many dishes are striking for their clarity and depth. The gazpacho was the best I had all year, and the sardines — butterflied, lightly grilled, and dressed with a fine dice of pickled fennel and red pepper, along with pine nuts, golden raisins and parsley — were exceptional.
Bad Saint, DC
There’s a lot to love already: the Filipino flavors are uncompromisingly complex, and the interpretations smart. Don’t miss a loose, lacy fritter of shrimp and sweet potato and okra and a bowl of clams with Chinese sausage and black beans in a rich, gently spicy and unexpectedly balanced broth. Both stunning. But a lot of what’s coming out of this kitchen with its leaping flames of fire is.
MGM Roast Beef, DC
Not new, no. But I went back recently and fell in love with it all over again. It used to be just ham and roast beef, roasted on site and carved to order. Now they have turkey and brisket, too. Wonderful stuff, and all the better when it’s piled thickly on one of their onion rolls.
Things have gradually been moving east, but this small, soothing spot has launched near the Maryland border in Woodridge, across from the onetime home of the seedy Kirk’s Motel. It’s one of the boldest moves in years. Red Hen is a clear inspiration, but that doesn’t detract from the simple charms of the place, which, early on, has made a lot of smart moves and almost no bad ones. Get the chicken-stuffed grape leaves, the Sicilian chickpea puree and the pan-seared cod with romesco and fingerlings.
Jonathan Krinn is working in a more accessible vein this time out, and partnering with Jason Maddens (ex-Central Michel Richard). Don’t assume, though, that the chef’s downscaled ambition is synonymous with a half-hearted effort. The cooking is smartly thought-out and cleanly executed, recalling, a times, his years spent ringing variations on timeless French classics.
Taqueria el Mexicano, Hyattsville
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.
Ray’s the Steaks, Arlington
Go and get the hanger steak. It can be a chewy cut, but this one wasn’t, not even close. It was richly succulent, a fat rope of wet-aged, corn-finished meat that I all but devoured, in spite of my avowals to self to save half for later. I had to keep reminding myself that it cost (this is not a typo) $20. And that’s with complimentary mashed potatoes and fresh creamed spinach. At a time when many other steakhouses charge $15 for shareable sides, that essentially means that the best steak I’ve eaten this year — one of the few that was not just a flavorless but calorific hunk of protein — costs $5. And I still can’t get over how good the key lime pie is after all these years.
Taiko Japanese Restaurant, Springfield
The fish at this strip mall spot has been impressive early on, even if the platters are cheesy (miniature model house, palm tree, changing cube of color beneath a heap of daikon.) In particular: excellent yellowtail belly, yellowtail, and salmon.
I love this Tuesday chat. You’ve hooked me on Thai Taste by Kob. Love the place – although the spice level has definitely dropped since you wrote about them. My other favorite Wheaton place is Mi La Cay.
What other places in Wheaton are hidden gems? I like all types of food.
Gabe, thanks for writing in …
I’m disappointed to hear that about Thai Taste. Makes me wonder whether they’ve gotten a lot of complaints from the broader audience the restaurant has attracted, now, with reviews. Thais themselves are not likely to complain, and food lovers who are not Thai are not likely to complain, so …
It’ll bear watching. Thanks for the report.
As for other gems, well, sad to say the new BeClaws is not one of them. That’s a new Cajun spot on 193, across from Max’s. Great space but thin, undeveloped flavors.
I love, though, the falafel at Max’s, Ruan Thai is fantastic, you already know about Mi La Cay (also really good), I like some dishes at The Chicken Place (Peruvian), Sergio’s (Honduran and some Cuban) has some pretty good dishes, Kantutas (for Bolivian) is good and fun …
Peter Chang.Can we (or should we) stop heaping praise on him if every time it’s uttered, it’s followed with “if you can find him” or “if he’s in the restaurant that night”. Shouldn’t a great chef be able to train the other cooks to do what he does?!!?!
Full disclosure – I’ve never eaten at one of his places, but I also don’t like rolling the dice on a precious (and costly) night out.
Costly? It’s not costly.
Dinner at a Fabio Trabocchi restaurant is costly. Dinner at a Jose Andrés restaurant can be costly. You can eat at a Chang restaurant for $40 for two.
As for heaping praise on him — I think a lot of his renown rests on the legend of him, which was forged about a decade ago and had a lot to do with the oddity and fascination of two pieces coming out about him on the same day, one in The Oxford American (a long essay I wrote) and one in The New Yorker, by Calvin Trillin. Sort of the food world equivalent of when a young, on-the-make Bruce Springsteen landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week.
I thought then that his cooking was exceptional, and he of course was a fascinating figure, always on the move.
In recent years, the magic is harder to come by. That magic may be a thing of its time, gone and never to be recaptured — or never to be recaptured at the level it’s now being presented to us. With his new, forthcoming showpiece restaurant, perhaps. But the streamlined Chang experience is not the Chang experience those of us who became devotees and even followers remember.
It’s like a lot of things in life. It has a shelf life. It’s not forever. Snatch it while you can. That’s unfortunate, yes, but it’s also the truth. And that truth is what makes a great run for a chef or an artist or a writer or a filmmaker or a sculptor beautiful.
I’d like to respond to the writer last week who complained about VA wines not getting enough press (and snarking on the NY wines). Full disclosure: my better half and I are proud crusaders for the Finger Lakes (and more recently the Niagara Escarpment and the North Fork).
The wines coming out of NY are diverse, excellently cultivated, thoughtfully designed, and lovingly produced. Every time we go to the FLX (which is about 3-4 times a year), we always return with cases and knowledge: everyone there wants to share their love for wine and wine-making, and is always ready to answer as many questions as you would like to ask. Further, Weimer and Sheldrake Point just made W&S’s 2015 Top 100 list (listing with Prüm and company).
As a contrast, in our experience have given VA wines multiple times to represent themselves and they fall flat and unmemorable. Not to mention that the prices are absurd. We’ve had tasting room workers who couldn’t tell us where the grapes were from or didn’t have tasting notes prepared. The tasting rooms emphasize large crowds and blaring music over the wine itself. To be fair, we have found some good wine and knowledgeable people at Delaplane Cellars, props to them. By no means are we wine snobs (we subscribe to the E.Asimov philosophy of “you like what you like and that’s what matters”), but VA has a long way to go before it reaches those levels of which the writer was speaking. The potential is there, but it hasn’t yet arrived.
I think there’s more than potential demonstrated.
I think in Glen Manor, RdV, Barboursville, Chrysalis, Jefferson Vineyards, Michael Shaps, Vint Hill, King Family Vineyards, among others, you have some excellent wineries that are making good wine. (I know I’m leaving out some good ones, so my apologies to anyone in the industry; I’m typing fast and these are the ones that leapt to mind.)
Price is an issue, sure, but it’s a separate issue.
I’m less interested in this ability to compete nationally or internationally that some wine writers and publications (and some wineries, ) fixate on. Are the wines distinctive? Not distinguished — that’s entirely a different matter. But distinctive: do they have a sense of place? Do they separate themselves from the pack?
The best Virginia wines do, and they’re exciting to taste and explore.
WHAT IS A “NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANT”?:
In your opinion, what is a “neighborhood restaurant”? Can a restaurant serve a $16 (not-fancy) omelet for brunch and still fit the category?
I don’t think it can. But of course it all depends on the neighborhood, right? 😉
I’ve said before that I think it’s an industry-created term. So many restaurants want to be considered “neighborhood” restaurants, and why wouldn’t they? It implies solidity, fixity, a place you, the diner, can trust. It gives a sense that the restaurant is part of its community, and what restaurant doesn’t want to be thought of that way?
It’s also a way for the restaurant to say: don’t judge us by higher standards; we’re not that kind of place; do you see us over-focusing on the tiniest of details? (In fact, though, I’ve seen a lot of quote-unquote neighborhood restaurants that are unrelaxed and self-conscious about how they come across.)
It’s a kind of clever cover, if you think about it: you can put your place across as ambitious but casual, as one-of-the-guys, as just-folks, even as you make every effort to distance yourself from every place on the block.
I think a real neighborhood restaurant is a place where you can dress down — way down, if you want — and nobody says a thing, and you run into people you know, and the mood is loose and the food is fine but of course not the reason you go.
Last meal before the baby arrives:
Garrison, Clarity, or the The Riggsby as a celebration meal before the baby arrives in two weeks?
That’s a tough one.
I think they’re all terrific additions to the scene.
I’m torn between Garrison and The Riggsby,
The former is more personal, more intimate, and going there is about seeing a chef create a unified experience that is rare in this era of small plates and restlessly eclectic menus. I love chef Weland’s pastas, and I love what a meal adds up to there. If you put a high value on the farmer/chef relationship, if you see that ethos as important, as giving a meal a dimension of value, then that’s the place to go. The Riggsby is more a place you can slip into and not have to think (I don’t mean this disparagingly, and I’m also not subtly dissing Garrison). I love a lot of what’s coming out of that kitchen — the sardines, the gazpacho (probably not around anymore), the burger, etc.
If either were in New York or San Francisco, you would be hearing a ton about them right now.
And I think Clarity should also be in that conversation of “among the finest restaurants to open in the country this year,” too.
MIKE ISABELLA’S FOOD STAND AT NATS PARK:
Your chat is no longer mentioned in the “Thread” section of the Washingtonian web site, which makes it tough for anyone who is not a regular follower to know it is taking place.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been going out to eat very often lately due to employment issues, so I have to live vicariously through others for a while. However, I did manage to catch the final Nats game of the season yesterday, and can vouch for the Italian cold cut sandwich from Mike Isabella’s food stand. It was pre-made, but surprisingly delicious. The sesame roll provided a nice chew, as well as a soft interior. The toppings were excellent as well. Not necessarily a bargain at $14.95, but it is large enough for two.
I’ve had that sandwich. Terrific.
Pretty great that you can get a thing like that at a ballpark. Good for chef Isabella, and good for Nats fans, too.
(I’ve just put in word with the web gurus about “The Thread” — ugh; thanks for the heads-up … )
The statement that Clarity as “among the finest restaurants to open in the country this year.” Do you think Clarity is going to receive the same national acclaim that Rose’s and Fiola Mare received?
No no no — it won’t.
It’s not the kind of place that national food publications are going to glom onto. It’s not, ahem, of the moment enough for them. The food isn’t novel or presented in a novel way. It’s not fusion, or a gloss on [fill-in-the-blank Asian cuisine]. The space isn’t statement-making or anti-statement making.
Clarity is just good, is all. Understated and good.
THAI TASTE, CONT.:
Thai Taste is still really good – you just have to tell them you want it Thai spicy. And – not sure if you wrote about this dish in the first place – but the Yum Pla Duk Fu – Elegant Fluffy Catfish Salad – is spectacular. Better – or at least on par with – the lychee salad at Rose’s Luxury that I waited 4 hours to eat last year.
Thanks for the tip about BeClaws – I will avoid.
Yeah, it’s a really good dish, especially when you spoon on some of the accompanying chili vinegars and salts.
Thanks for coming back on to tell us how the kitchen is doing these days; good to know, and good to hear.
VIRGINIA WINE, CONT.:
It is unfortunate that the New Yorker felt it necessary to denigrate Virginia wines. It is wrong to suggest that they have fallen flat whenever given a chance. I might suggest all to read a pair of articles regarding comparing Virginia wines to those elsewhere (https://www.washingtonian.com/articles/food-dining/the-best-virginia-viognier-wines/ and http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/18/AR2009081800780.html).
I do agree on one point. The entry price for Virginia wines has risen significantly over the past few years. Finding a really good wine is not difficult–I’m partial to Barboursville for reds and Keswick or Veritas for Viognier. Finding a bargain, on the other hand, is exceedingly difficult. Entry point is high teens for whites and mid-20s for reds. I wonder if the proximity to the DMV has lifted prices relative to other regions.
I agree on that point, too.
You’re looking at mid-20s for a bottle of something good. That’s high. Michael Shaps’s Wine Works is the exception, but they’re not easy to find.
And the problem with having wines at prices like that is the casual drinker who might be tempted to try a Virginia wine is going to be thinking: $28 for a wine I’ve never heard of? When I can pick up this Cab from California that Robert Parker has given 90 points to for $17?
I must have missed the piece you’re referring to, by the way. I’m a subscriber and haven’t come across anything like that in the magazine. Was it online?
To broaden the conversation a little, we always talk about dishes and places and rarely about drinks. So, what wines are you all into right now? What are you pouring regularly at the table at home? Or what are you excited to track down?
And if not wine, beer. If not wine and beer, cocktails or liqueurs …
Headed to Charleston in November to celebrate our anniversary. We are there Thursday – Sunday. FIG, McGrady’s are high on the list. Other places to consider or updates since your article a few months back?
I’d make sure not to miss either Leon’s Oyster Shop or The Ordinary.
Speaking of great recent-ish debuts that are national-class, Leon’s is another. One of the best meals I’ve eaten this year. And it’s worth emphasizing that it was a very simple meal. A very simple and outstanding and memorable meal.
Please promise to come back and regale us with tales of your eating adventures …
FINGER LAKES WINES, CONT.:
I too am a proponent of Finger Lakes wines- by and large, the producers on Seneca and Cayuga produce some of the finest Rieslings in the US (I would have no problem with them going up against the best Alsatian counterparts).
However, it took time for FLX wines to get to where they are- the atmosphere that the previous poster described of some VA wines was what a lot of the FLX wineries hosted- more of a party-hearty vibe than actual thoughtful winemaking. It’s nice to see VA wineries coming into their own (reds in particular- I’ve had some great meritages in the Front Royal area), but I’ll have to agree that ignoring Finger Lakes wines means that people are missing out.
Who’s advocating ignoring them? They’re putting out some wonderful wines. Count me a big fan.
NIDO, IN WOODRIDGE:
Thinking about trying out Nido after reading about it here. Was wondering if their online menu is updated frequently enough to be a current reflection of their offerings.
That menu that’s up there right now looks to be pretty close to the one I saw in my three visits over late summer.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see that a few things have been swapped out for other things, but what you see is, on the whole, a pretty good accounting of what they do.
The place deserves support.
Another good debut this year. This recent crop of new restaurants — add Bad Saint to the list — has been one of the best I can remember in a long time.
FOOD ROAD TRIP:
Good friends will be moving from the east coast and are planning a food road trip. They live in NYC and are planning to head south, with stops in Philly, DC/MD, and VA. They are looking for unique and fine dining experiences. For Philly I suggested Restaurant Laurel or Vetri.
They lived in DC, but have not tried Fiola Mare. Any suggestions would be much appreciated.
Fiola Mare, yes. Rose’s. Little Serow. And add Garrison, and Bad Saint, too.
I’d sure love to get back up to Laurel. How was your last meal there? And when was it?
Beer…now you’re talking my language! 😉
Stumbled upon Fair Winds Brewing near Ft. Belvoir a few months ago and my husband and I are hooked! They are putting out some really excellent IPAs/hoppy beer. They are relatively new to the scene and, if I remember correctly, the brewmaster used to be head brewer at Mad Fox.
Good to hear! Thanks. I’ll look for it.
Do you know who’s carrying their stuff?
What’s your take on all these cocktail menus coming up with clever names for classic cocktails (like a Manhattan listed as a “Whistle while you work”)?
Is it false advertising? Clever marketing? Seems to me like an easy way for a restaurant to charge a couple extra bucks.
Are you seeing these for drinks that have all the standard components of classic cocktails?
Because I’m not; but correct me if I’m mistaken. I’m seeing places make a tweak or two to the standard recipe and then say that this rendition is “our version of” the one you all know and love.
I haven’t really thought about what I think about that. I mean, if the new drink is good, it’s good, and good for the restaurant to have it on the menu. If it’s not, then yeah, it looks like misapplied cleverness and you rue having spent $14 for something that tastes gimmicky and doesn’t satisfy like the simple drink of yore does.
VIRGINIA WINES, CONT.:
I am the OP from last week about VA wines. I don’t do winery tours. I have spent 30+ years go to the Finger Lakes and Watkins Glen for various races and I am familiar with wines from the Finger Lakes and sorry they can’t hold a candle to VA’s best.
Barboursville, Chrysalis, Jefferson Vineyards, Michael Shaps, Vint Hill and several others are far superior to anything in the Finger lakes or out on the island. Plus VA has better whiskey too.
Have a great day and I beep at you on Rt 15 heading to the Glen in my 2002 with the Formula 2 engine. You will hear me coming
Thanks for coming back on …
I don’t want to get into compare and contrast right now — can we just say they’re both producing good wines, and that it’s exciting to see the emergence of these regions whose wines on the whole taste nothing like those of Oregon, Washington, and California?
That’s interesting, and it’s good for American wine.
Um, the poster who took it upon herself to throw shade on FLX wines in favor of VA wines, that’s who.
The point I’m trying to make is that BOTH states are putting out great wines; unfortunately, various boosters like to denigrate one region in an effort to boost another. As mature adults, we know that that form of thinking is dangerous, small-minded, and generally the antithesis of who we’d like to be: free thinking, worldly, and tolerant. All of this is to say, like what you like, different strokes, it’s cool. Be you, dude.
Right. Good is good. And measuring is an interesting exercise, I guess, and I know some people really do love to run one thing up against another (not just in wine but in all manner of fields), but you and I and maybe a lot of others out there don’t really care one way or another.
We’re out to find what’s interesting. Or good. Or, ideally, for some of us, interesting and good.
Thanks for chiming in …
And, just curious: why do you think the “shade-throwing” chatter is a she?
COCKTAIL NAMES, CONT.:
Yeah, I’ve seen restaurants take standard drinks and provide new names to make them sound trendy. In my opinion, a Manhattan with rye and upgraded vermouth doesn’t deserve a novel title. I’d rather just see the ingredients listed if they want to call attention to their inclusion.
“Upgraded vermouth” is a tweak, no?
I mean, not really to you and me — upgraded vermouth is still vermouth, it’s not like you’re substituting liquid smoke for vermouth: now that’d be a TWEAK — but you can make an argument that that constitutes an “interpretation” of a standard.
I agree with you, though, it’s kind of annoying. It says: look at me! I have a twist on a classic!
FAIR WINDS, CONT.:
I don’t think Fair Winds is canning or bottling yet. However, a lot of restaurants and bars in the area have started carrying their brews on draft in DC and VA (including Churchkey).
Thanks for the clarification.
I’ll be on the lookout …
COCKTAIL NAMES, CONT.:
Re:Cocktail names, I love the new names and new cocktails, my current favorite is the Robusto at Fiola Mare (technically a smoked campari) I also like those with funny or interesting names, because it makes it easier to remember and showcases a place’s personality (as long as it’s not an already named classic cocktail!)
On a separate note, years ago, I ordered Americano before a dinner at Park Hyatt in Georgetown, and they brought me a coffee! Maybe that one needs to be renamed 🙂
Yeah, you know, the more I think about this, the more I’m with the chatter who first put this out there. Unless the bartender or mixologist or bar chef or master stirrer or whatever has made real changes to the original recipe, then just call it what it is. Save the cleverness and effort for something else.
But I can also sorta see your point, in that it can help to establish the personality of a place. Think about this drink, at Hank’s Oyster Bar — “An Italian Gentleman Riding His Bike Through the Piazza with His Pant Leg Rolled Slightly Above His Ankle.” Now that’s a name!
Re Beer: Congratulations to Port City Brewing Company, which won Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival this past weekend.
Considering Devil’s Backbone won the same award in 2013, that’s a nice series of wins for the region’s brewing community.
Good news — thanks for sharing it …
The trend in descriptors over the past couple of years seems to go back and forth between sometimes using “herself” as the default rather than “himself” (Slate.com seems to be a proponent of this). In the olden days, the default seemed to fall on the male post-particular (MP)- though “masculine preferred” is a term that seemed to raise the hackles of just about everyone. This is all to say, in an effort to be more open while not falling back on staid societal norms of addressing unknowns, I went with the more current terminology. In other words: Just because.
Thanks for chiming in and opening us up to a debate that could go on for weeks …
I’m going to decline to enter into these choppy waters, though I do think that favoring herself over himself is just as bad as favoring himself over herself.
Thanks, everyone, for all the good tips and comments and musings. And I’m sorry for the handful of questions, some of them long or longish, that I didn’t get to. Next week! Gotta run …
And if you want to reach me beforehand, you can always drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …[missing you, TEK … ]