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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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.
BEST CHINESE IN DC PROPER?:
Best place in DC proper for chinese food?
Not the fancy stuff, I am talking the cheap delivery/carryout places. I have been craving some mongolian beef that will bring me back to college, but all the “Chinese, Chicken, and Sub” places in the city seem indistinguishable and risky.
Any random gems that won’t make me sick?
Best place in DC proper, right now, is probably Panda Gourmet, which has some terrific Szechuan cooking. Also, some indifferent and surly service. And no atmosphere or warmth at all — it’s in a Days Inn on New York Ave.
You’re not going to find Mongolian beef, unfortunately. Or, actually, fortunately, if you really want something genuine.
REPORTS FROM THE FIELD: THE RIGGSBY, LE DIPLOMATE, AND HILL COUNTRY:
I was the previous poster re: empty nester celebrating my husband’s 50th birthday .
With Hotel Helix’s upcoming closing we decided to stay there since we were married there when they first opened. The hotel is, unfortunately in need of an update – but fond memories for us regardless!
We opted to have dinner Saturday night at The Riggsby (another Kimpton property BTW). The atmosphere was terrific and service good. The table over from us had a better waiter who was more forthcoming with menu information, we simply had to be much more active with our waiter – which is fine, but not what we expected. Honestly I found the food to be good to very good – not excellent. There are definitely other places we’d go back to – I’m not so sure about this one – and don’t take it the wrong way. It was good and we had a lot of fun, but more fun than somewhere else? tastiest food this year? Nope.
Brunch at Le Diplomate, however, was terrific. We’ve been there for dinner a few times and I never thought it was great and just so loud. As a non meat & shellfish eater I always found the menu very limited. but brunch was perfect! Plenty of options and everything we ordered was wonderful as was the service! I’d definitely go back for brunch!
Friday night, with a large group (13 total) I hosted a dinner for my husband at Hill Country and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give them a positive shout out. Working with Nora in catering made the evening a breeze for me and our guests. I preselected the menu and did drinks on consumption and everyone had a great time and raved about the brisket! They made a nice salad for me and the evening’s band was a bonus! All around a nice weekend.
I’m looking forward to trying Garrison and hoping that it will wow me more than The Riggsby.
Thanks for coming back on and gifting us with this report. i appreciate it.
Interesting to hear about The Riggsby. Not my experience in three visits, but you were there and I was not. I hope it was an aberration, an off night, not that that does much of anything for you.
And go and try out Garrison and let me know what you found …
I’m glad I could play a tiny part in making your weekend a good one …
PUB CRAWL MEAL AT EDEN CENTER?:
Thinking of doing a “pub crawl” style meal at Eden Center with some friends from out of town.
Three of us are very adventurous, omnivore-type eaters (the other is a vegetarian who’s actually not a big fan of vegetables).
You wrote in a chat about this 2 years ago, but one of the restaurants is closed, and I wondered if you’d still recommend those, or others (to refresh your memory here were your recs: banh mi at Nhu Lan, continuing on to appetizers at Huong Viet, then entrees at Rice Paper, and dessert at BamBu)
I’d still recommend all of these, yes, and in that progression, too.
And all are open, to the best of my knowledge.
I think the one that I recommended that isn’t around anymore is the pho parlor, Pho Xe Lua.
You might also swap one of those out and go with Hai Duong, Banh Cuon Saigon, Bay Lo, or Nha Trang.
But if I were a first-timer, the progression you set down is the one I’d go with.
Please report back. I’d love to hear how things turned out.
THE RIGGSBY, GARRISON, OR NIDO?:
My parents are coming into town this weekend, and we’d like to take them to a nice dinner. We don’t have any food allergies or picky eaters, just people who enjoy great food. If you have to choose between The Riggsby, Garrison, and Nido, which do you choose?
Or, if you have additional restaurant suggestions, I’d love to hear them.
I think The Riggsby and Garrison are in a different class than Nido, though, as everyone on here knows, I’m high on Nido.
Between the two, I think it comes down to the kind of night you’re looking for. Garrison is foodier, if that word has any currency for you; you’re aware of where things come from, and why, and the presentations are meant, often, to highlight these sources.
It’s a particular kind of night, and will appeal to a particular kind of diner. There are people, friends of mine even, I probably wouldn’t take to Garrison. I don’t think they’d plug into its aesthetic, and I think they would take issue with the size of some of the plates, particularly the meat courses, where ~30 bucks doesn’t bring a generous portion; these plates are more about the compositions than about sending out a hunk of well-prepared steak or duck.
The Riggsby is an easier sell for a person like that, though it’s also — and this is not a knock on it — a less personal place, a less intimate, one-man’s-vision sort of experience.
Does that help narrow it?
If not, happy to write more. 😉
You asked for other recs. I don’t think I would suggest it for you and your folks, given that there’ll be four of you and you’d likely have to wait two hours, but the three most exciting, most delicious meals I’ve had in a long, long time in this city were at the new Bad Saint.
EDEN CENTER, CONT.:
Thanks for the confirmation and recs!
Depends on what you mean by first-timers: have been to Eden Center many times, but haven’t done this kind of meal before.
The others you list seem like a great set of backups–are those alternative restaurants you mention famous for particular things? and if so, what?
Ok, so you’re not new to Vietnamese cooking; that’s all I was saying.
You might want to veer off script, then. Just for something different.
Banh Cuon Saigon is known for just that — for banh cuon. This is a northern Vietnamese specialty, of steamed, fermented rice sheets, which are filled with various things, for instance, ground pork and shallots, or — my pick at Banh Cuon Saigon — shrimp and shallots. When it comes to the table, spoon out some of the nuoc cham from the big mason jar to season it. Great stuff.
Nha Trang does an excellent job with its roast quail and grilled pork rolls and shaky beef.
Hai Duong, the thing to get is the Bun Bo Hue, a beef noodle soup from central Vietnam that has more body and more kick and more richness than pho.
EDEN CENTER, CONT.:
Oh man, my stomach is growling now! Will let you know how it goes, and thanks again.
You’re going to have a great time, wherever you end up.
Many non-Vietnamese who go to the Eden Center tend to stay on the outside of the mall, hitting Rice Paper and Huong Viet. Both are very good, and have earned their reputations the hard way.
But there’s a world of treasure on the inside of the mall, too. It pays to roam and explore.
A BIT OVERBLOWN:
I just wanted to throw my 2 cents in about Garrison and The Riggsby.
I see that both you and Tom Sietsema are giving both places a lot of kudos. Your comment about if either were in SF or NYC makes me feel the need to comment. I’ve been to both, multiple times. (Riggsby twice, Garrison 3 times.) I am a frequent restaurant go-er. I also travel to NYC & SF a good amount and I am fortunate enough to eat through their restaurant scenes.
I don’t think either match up to the great restaurants in those cities or are even in the upper tier of the restaurants in our own city, DC.
Garrison: I love what they stand for – as you highlight, a farmer to cook ethos, and their approach to their food. However, in terms of flavors and pure satisfaction, it all falls a little short. We have restaurants in the city which make vegetable dishes punch more and make more of a splash. For example, roasted cauliflower, tastes just like that. It swims in a pool of oil and no mention of parmesan, mint is wilted in oil and pine nuts are on the plate for no understandable reason. this is fine, I love simply roasted cauliflower. However, you’re at a restaurant and expect more. Crispy Skin Char – is well cooked and the cucumberes both ribbons and some slightly pickled are nice, the accompanying dill & yogurt sauce is watery. However the dish is small and is becomes boring after a couple of bites. It also only lasts a couple of bites. Other restaurants, can give you a simple preparation of fish at the same value for better. Also, speaking of value I feel like you and Tom Sietsema don’t speak to it. You pay a lot for very little in this restaurant. The corn tortellini, while having great flavor – are so tiny and there are so few of them. The mushroom dish, is maybe one or two slivered (trumpet I think?) mushrooms on slivers of avocado. You have to dish out a lot to be satisfied here, if you have a normal adult’s appetite.
I feel the appreciation for the approach that Garrison is taking is making many of us, myself included, bring it into highlight more than the actual satisfaction and comfort level that the food is actually delivering. I could go into a dish by dish narrative and really dissect this place piece by piece, but I don’t think we want to go into that depth here – I am trying to get this out at 1,000 feet.
The Riggsby: I like this place. I like the retro vibe and the straight forward american cuisine, what’s not to like?Dishes you highlight are great, but does this stand up in terms of execution as other top tier DC restaurants and ones in the SF and NYC scene? It probably misses that mark. However, it is still new and I think they are off to a great start, in fact I think both are they just need more tuning.
Bad Saint, I think deliver more in droves in terms of food. It could be thrown out at more established food scenes & their restaurants any day. Nido, also isn’t far from being at that point as well – I think the location and how far out it is will make it miss a lot of the attention it deserves.
Again, I don’t mean to drag those places down. I like what they are doing – I just find the current talk around them to be a bit overblown & wanted to throw this out for your consideration/see your thoughts to it.
Thanks for writing.
To clarify, I didn’t say that I think they stand with the best of those cities. I said that I think they belong in the conversation nationally for finest debuts of the year.
And as for value, if you read my review of Garrison, which is in the current issue, I do address the question of value at about the two-thirds mark of the review. As I said earlier in the chat, echoing the review, I have friends who I know would find the portions stinting — I sometimes found them stinting.
Overblown? I don’t know. I think they’re very strong debuts. Perfect, no. Four star spots, no. But very strong out of the gate.
Like you, I’m super enthused about Bad Saint, though you have to realize it’s a completely different kind of restaurant — 13 dishes total, and most diners (all 20 or so of them) sit on stools.
I find it funny that you and others have pointed out “how far out” Nido is. How far out from what? From downtown? Haven’t we moved past this thinking about the city and region? Clarity is far out, too. So is the Inn at Little Washington. Vin 909 is far for some. What difference does it make if something’s good?
Sorry to cut this short earlier than usual, everyone. But please send along whatever you’ve got and I’ll answer you by email if it can’t wait til next week — email@example.com
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 … [missing you, TEK … ]