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
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.
CHEFS FOR EQUALITY:
I went to Chefs for Equality this year and found the food culture supporting the event to be very special, particularly with all of the chefs to be so supportive of one focused cause. The stations were all great and reflected the restaurants well. I even had a chance to find Morini’s station while walking around and had some kind of amazing apple pecan vanilla parfait concoction.
Though swarmed with people, the young man in front of the table was so nice and introduced me to the the pastry chef working hard at assembling the desserts. I looked at him, and he stopped for a moment to say hello and offered his card as part of the introduction to invite me and my friend to have dinner at the restaurant and that if we needed help getting a table he would be happy to assist. The parfait was so great that we had two more. Each time we returned, he smiled and continuing chatting while working.
But then I opened my newspaper the next day and was amazed to see him on the cover of the washington post – good for him and that article was so well done. The writer called him a mensch and a talent. I agree. I needed to share that with you. And we will be in to Morini to sample the dessert menu as soon as I can gather my girlfriends together for a dinner.
Thanks for writing.
I’m guessing this is Alex Levin, the pastry chef at Morini. I’m also guessing he’s going to get a kick out of reading this.
It’s a nice story, and speaks well of chef Levin. A little niceness can go a long, long way, can’t it?
Good morning, everyone.
I’m interested in hearing what you’ve been up to, where you’ve been eating, what you’ve been enthused about, what you’ve been cooking, where you’re eager to go, etc. Send away …
WHICH IS THE MORE EXCITING DEBUT OF THE FALL?:
More “exciting” restaurant Fall opening to you: Momofuku CCDC or The Dabney?
I’m going to dodge this, not because it’s a bad question, but because I really don’t have a read on The Dabney.
I know the name Jeremiah Langhorne, and I’ve eaten multiple times at McCrady’s in Charleston, SC, where he was chef de cuisine, and enjoyed it. But — and this is not to suggest that I have doubts about chef Langhorne, so I don’t want it to be taken that way — having a track record of success under someone else is not a guarantee of greatness when you’re on your own and in a new place.
I’m really eager to see what he does.
As for Momofuku, it’s much more of a known quantity, even though every iteration of a brand restaurant is going to be different, with different people in the kitchen and on the floor, a different menu, a different crowd (which is a variable that can’t be discounted; it really can alter the dynamic of a restaurant on the floor).
I don’t expect it to be exceptional right out of the gate, but I do think that it will emerge, and soon, as the best restaurant in City Center and, in time — maybe a few months, even — as one of the top restaurants in the city.
“MIND OF A CRITIC” AT THE SMITHSONIAN:
It was great hearing you speak at the Smithsonian recently during the “Mind of a Critic” event. You talked about the importance of anonymity as a food critic. Are there ever food events that you regret not being able to attend? Are there any exceptions to your rule (i.e. the James Beard Awards).
Thanks for coming out for that.
I should point out that I, and Tom Sietsema, and Stephanie Gans from Northern Virginia magazine spoke in get-up: ball caps/wraps, dark glasses, and clothes we ordinarily don’t wear. Jessica Sidman of City Paper was cognito, as was retired Post critic Phyllis Richman.
I actually didn’t speak about the importance of “anonymity” — that was Tom. I’m not really sure what I think about it, at least as most folks in the food world tend to define it.
For me, what is important, as I said at the event, is maintaining a critical distance. That means, for one, not going to the parties and making the rounds of events. It’s easy to get sucked into that, and, I think, dangerous. Talking all the time to insiders, keeping a close ear out for the gossip, for “news,” for what foodies are talking about, etc. That might make for posts that generate lots of clicks, and of course publications love that. They love anything that makes people click, like those lists — 10 best brunches, 10 best places to dine outdoors — that are not drawn from fresh research but simply culled from existing sources. They read like it, too, although I don’t think the average person understands this, Or cares.
Staying away from the chatter, from the groupthink — there’s a lot of groupthink in food media — is vitally important. Being an insider, being close to things, might give a writer some nice scoops and whatnot, as I said, but it distorts. You end up thinking that the scene is made up of celebrity chefs and hipster restaurants, that these are the only sources of interesting material. You pay attention to the squeaky wheels. You take your cues from the publicists, or from the people who are willing to talk. You reflect back “what people are talking about,” rather than what you yourself find interesting or worthy or interesting and worthy. Etc.
If I had time, I would really flesh this out and explain myself more fully and clearly …
For now — sorry — this has to suffice.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: BEEFSTEAK, IN DC:
I have a beef about Beefsteak.
Had been looking forward to it, as a vegetarian and a Jose Andres fan. But I had a real problem with the poached egg option in the bowls — specifically the Eden bowl — which turned out to be an egg that had been steamed or boiled in its shell, and was then cracked over the bowl of veggies and sauce. The egg white was barely opaque, and the result was a soupy mess.
I sent them a (polite) email afterwards, but never got a response.
Wondering if anyone else has had a similar experience.
The staff also seemed confused and rushed, but that was less of an issue for me.
So, the problem was that the poached egg wasn’t quite poached and came out too soppy to feel like anything more than runny, albumen-y goo?
I mean, I hear you. That’s not appetizing, and of course not what you expected or paid for.
But this really is a good illustration of the idea that if at all possible you want to bring something like this up at the time, with a manager, and not after the fact, in an email or a public forum like this.
It probably could have been corrected on the spot.
Is there ever a point when drink prices are just too much?
I realize restaurants make their money on alcohol, but with double digit beer prices and $15 cocktails popping up across the city, I’m starting to feel like a robbery victim rather than a patron.
I don’t blame you.
It’s not just the drink prices. It’s everything. Look at portion sizes. In the past few months, I’ve eaten at three different restaurants, and been stunned to find a main course, priced in the low 30s, that consisted of two small strips of meat. If I was insulted, I can’t imagine what someone who is not having a meal paid for would feel.
And one of these restaurants, I should add, is a place I like very much, a new restaurant I’ve been very effusive about.
This is a really, really expensive city to eat in. To live in. To play in.
And every year it seems to get noticeably worse …
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: LE DIPLOMATE, IN DC:
I read every week and am never compelled to write, but am in need of a quick vent session…
Stopped by Le Dip last Sunday for the burger – something I’ve done at least a dozen times. This time, however, I ended up with a large piece of plastic in my mouth. We discreetly let the server know, and the manager did come over with some kind words (although none of them were “sorry”) and we paid for the burger after a comped dessert and left. Really not sure when, or if, I’ll be back.
Le Dip has been lacking in quality for some time now, but it just irks me that they seem not to care about it. Do I give it another shot? Should the manager have handled this differently?
I wasn’t there, so I can’t say what sort of tone he or she conveyed at the table — though you did say the words were “kind words.”
The manager did bring you a dessert, gratis, as a compensatory gesture.
I’m not sure what more is called for. It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that justifies comping the entire meal. As I say, I wasn’t there, I don’t know how big the piece of plastic was — how big was it, anyway? can you compare it to something? — but I just don’t know what else the manager should have done in that circumstance.
You say that it irks you that they seem not to care — I take it you mean the perceived slippage in quality. That’s an entirely different question. Unless you mean that you think this episode shows a lack of concern and empathy. In which case I think I have to disagree.
CHRISTINA TOSI AND MILK BAR:
I was unable to attend your program, “Christina Tosi: Bringing Milk Bar Life to DC.” Were there any transcripts from last Thursday’s event? Would you mind sharing one interesting fact that you learned from Ms. Tosi, which may not have already been publicized?
Also can you tell us whether all the baked goods will be made in a commissary kitchen for the Milk Bar DC location or only select items? From a business perspective, I understand the decision to use a commissary kitchen. From a consumer perspective, I notice the texture of baked goods being affected by the plight of plastic wrap and/or being pre-frozen.
Milk Bar was my favorite NYC destination back in 2009. I’d try to visit as much as possible. I dreamed that DC would acquire a Milk Bar like it was back in the early days when you could watch the pastry chefs knead the doughs and pull out sheet after sheet of freshly baked goods. The magical scents of yeast and sugar and pork fat would waft through the air, stimulating all olfactory and gustatory senses, and lull you into a calm stupor while you waited in line for your next pastry epiphany. All the employees were smiling and there was a feeling of camaraderie among everyone one in the room. The ambiance in their initial store remains one of my favorite food memories.
I know that it’s near impossible to maintain the same standards with Milk Bar’s expansion but it saddens me to report that the relocated East Village shop has shifted into a much different image. If you don’t order immediately, then you’re chided by the surly employees. On different orders, I’ve been served buns that still had slightly frozen interiors. To be fair, I may have visited on particularly bad days over the past year and maybe these issues have been resolved.
What are your thoughts about how to better manage consumer expectations when a restaurant or bakery has to change their business model to meet growing demand?
Although I have nostalgia and textural idiosyncrasies, I recognize Christina Tosi as a pastry chef pioneer and I have the utmost respect for her creative recipes. I know that it’s not fair of me to harbor a romanticized vision of Milk Bar from so many years ago. In addition, I should mention that I’ve had nothing but incredible food and amazing customer service when I’ve dined at the Momofuku restaurants.
You bring up some good questions, but unfortunately I don’t have any good answers for you — or rather, I don’t feel comfortable offering business advice or speculating about business practices when I don’t spend time analyzing businesses and have never run one myself.
I can say that, generally speaking, when a single, wonderful restaurant becomes two restaurants, it’s often the case that what you are left with. at best, is two good places rather than one wonderful place. And when two becomes three, then five, there rarely, if ever, is that sense of something special in the air, something that is so much more than the sum of all the excellent parts.
As for the event last week, one of the interesting things I learned was that, if you’re making chocolate chip cookies, you can reduce the flour by 1/4 C and add in 1/2 C of Rice Krispies. Chef Tosi says it’s an old trick from her grandmother, and makes for great and memorable cookies.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: DC HARVEST, ON H ST.:
Ate at DC Harvest on H Street NE. Another locally sourced, seasonal modern American restaurant with a shocking twist – no small plates.
Enjoyed blue catfish and quinoa (locally Sourced?) cakes among other dishes. All entrees $25 or less.
Worth the drive across town – not likely but a good solid restaurant on a strip that can often times be more hype than substance.
That’s interesting to hear.
I’ll have to give it another try. My one meal there, not long after it opened, was disappointing (despite a nice moment or two), and, I thought, overpriced.
Speaking of H St. I was at Ocopa not all that long ago, and a friend and I had the space nearly all to ourselves. This was a weeknight, yes, but to be that empty? And we’re talking about a legit 2 1/2 star restaurant here.
The meal was really good, with the best main course I’ve had there since the place opened — a pork shoulder cooked in beer and cilantro, with thin shaved onions and fried plantains and mashed sweet potatoes.
A shame. I realize prices are higher than most of what you find on H St., but this restaurant also transcends the neighborhood; it should be drawing people from other parts of the city. It deserves wide support.
What’s a diner to do when he/she encounters an entree sized for a five star restaurant? Vow not to return? Mention to the manager that the value proposition seems off?
I’m not sure what you’re asking.
Need more context — are you saying you came across a really tiny portion of an entree in a 1 1/2 or 2 star restaurant, which ought to be more about delivering heartiness and value?
Where was this?
And what was the dish?
If you Bears barbecue and caterings food truck stop and get some of Bear’s ribs and especially his baked beans. His ribs are the best in the area. And his baked beans are the best I have ever had. Nothing I have tried in the US and Canada comes close. I just got back from a week in Austin, TX for US Grand Prix and Bear’s Q and beans rivals any Q and beans I had in Austin.
Where is it?
I just went looking for some sort of listing online and came up with nothing.
Any suggestions for gastronomically navigating Paris (France, not Texas, Virginia, or Maine)? I couldn’t find any information by you personally in my admittedly limited searching. (You are often linked with Alan Richman of GQ who won a James Beard Journalism award for The Very Tasty Liberation of Paris the same year as you.)
Is there a source for information you would recommend?
The website Paris by Mouth is a good resource; I’d give that a good scouring.
As for me, it’s been several years since I’ve been — unfortunately for me, because I love eating in Paris, and always have such great experiences.
These are a few of my favorites from past visits, and I think all are still around: Le Comptoir, La Regalade, Frenchie, L’Ami Jean. I believe Senderens is no longer in business, which is too bad; wonderful place.
Have a great trip, and please report back!
Ocopa. Agree with the assessment and am luckily able to eat their fairly frequently. If you haven’t had the grilled beef hearts – you must return.
There’re a number of musts on that menu, including the excellent (and very beautiful) causa.
People: throw your support behind this place. It deserves an audience.
I was referring to you getting two slices of meat for a $30+ entree at a place where you might expect more. What should the average diner do? I think I would tell the manager that the prices seemed a tad high for what they’re offering.
Yes, tell the manager — although that can be an awkward experience for a lot of people, especially if the manager is not really interested in hearing it.
Some will feel that the diner is presenting them with a problem that cannot be easily solved. Problem-solution people, and there are many of them around, don’t like this sort of a conundrum.
Even those who are open to hearing it, might not know how to take action. That’s a discussion to have with a chef, and most chefs are not going to listen to a complaint from a single diner. There has to be a critical mass of complaints. Only then is a chef likely to listen.
Or if a single critic bitches in an online forum — maybe then. 😉 But then again, maybe not.
Many chefs are determined to carry out what they see in their minds, regardless of how a diner or a critic might see that.
Which is neither good nor bad; just is.
Actually, no — it’s good if the dish is good; it’s bad if the dish is bad. 🙂
DRINK PRICES, CONT.:
I agree about the drink prices and the $40 – $50 entrees and now finding my self going to these type of restaurants and splitting appetizer and entree to lower the cost of going out.
The drink prices are crazy! Might as well bring a flask and just order club soda or coke and pour my liquor in 🙂
Or — drink when you get back home.
I’m not seeing $40 and $50 entrees all that much. Restaurants have been careful, for the most part, to keep them in the low 30s.
It’s everything else that’s been going up, up, up.
Todd, is there a big difference in taste between Iberico ham and other hams like Jamon Serrano?
There is a big price difference between the two and haven’t made the jump to try Iberico ham. I’ve seen it proudly displayed at places like Jaleo, Estadio, and Boqueria and would like to get your thoughts please.
There is a big difference, yes.
Jamon Iberico is an amazing ham. Super rich and flavorful, the kind of thing that fills your mouth with just one bite. Which is a good thing, given the price, since you’re not likely to get more than a few bites at a time. 🙂
As to whether it’s worth it, that’s for you to decide. To me, it’s a special ham, the most distinctive, most memorable ham in the world.
I hear Dinosaur Barbq just opened in Baltimore! Wish it opened in DC. I hear such good things about this barbq joint. Is it worth trekking up to Bmore for some good barbq?
Are you kidding?
Good barbecue — and I’ve never had Dinosaur Barbecue, only read good things about it — but good barbecue is always worth traveling for.
Speaking of — there’s really good barbecue in our own area, in Leesburg, at the new Smokehouse Live. In fact, I’d go so far as to say some of it is national-class good. I’d be willing to put some of its meats up against the best I’ve had around the country over the past five years.
Brian Yealy, the chef, has two expensive smokers at his disposal, and gives his meats the time they need in there — 18 hours, at 200 degrees. I love the dark, almost black barks he gets on his ribs, briskets, and other cuts.
Some great sides, too, including the fantastic whiskey pickles, which spend time in barrels from Catoctin Creek distillery.
A QUESTION ABOUT TIMING:
Wanted to ask you about timing – partner and I went to one of the city’s better known, yet casual Italian joints, where we had some really delicious food.
When we placed our order, we let our server know that we would be sharing all of the dishes. The problem was that our pasta (which, thoughtfully – had been split into two separate plates) arrived as the same time as our main entree (both of which arrived before we had finished our antipasti). So by the time we finished our antipasti and pasta, our main dish was completely cold.
We flagged down a manager and got the dish reheated, but in doing so, the fish and accompaniments became overcooked. How, in retrospect, should we have remedied this? Directed our waiter when we wanted things served? Asked for a new plate instead of just getting it reheated?
Don’t blame yourselves — the server screwed up.
Having the two course arrive at the same time simply shouldn’t happen in a good or pretty good restaurant.
And reheating the entree, so that it comes out soggy — absolutely terrible, and completely unacceptable.
Earlier, a chatter wondered whether the restaurant did enough in comping a dessert for a piece of plastic in a dish. You didn’t even get comped a dessert. If this were my restaurant, the meal would have been on the house. I’m sorry that option was not extended to you — you shouldn’t have had to go through something like this AND pay for it.
Todd – looking for suggestions – planning a surprise trip to nyc this spring for a birthday. My plan is for 2 nights – one night will be a surprise dinner with some of her best friends that live up there whom she went to camp with and has known most of her life. There likely will be 6 – 8 of us. The type of food isn’t a big deal so long as it is good and the restaurant has a good atmosphere. I have never been, but heard good things about Carbone. Thoughts on Carbone and any other recommendations.
My plan for the other night was a more intimate meal at perhaps le bernadin. However, another restaurant that intrigues me is rebelle (seems like the next best option if you can’t get to spring). Appreciating that they are probably totally different experiences any thoughts on if rebelle is an “appropriate” place for a significant birthday?
Also, if I could ask the favor to perhaps disguise some of this question to not risk the surprise getting out…
Thanks for your help!
I dined at Rebelle in late summer and enjoyed it — particularly the excellent saucing and the fantastic wines (one of the best lists in the city and in the country, too).
I would say that I really liked the meal more than loved it, for whatever that’s worth. If you like old-school saucing and love great, interesting wine, I think it’s worth going; if those aren’t things you value highly, then I might not.
I’d make one of my meals a trip to Uncle Boons, which I’m really, really eager to get back to. Fantastic Thai flavors and high-quality ingredients (particularly fish and seafood) from two cooks who used to work at Per Se. And the crab rice — unforgettable.
As for your splurge me, what about Jean-Georges on Columbus Circle? There’s still nothing like it. Every dish tastes like the distilled essence of its ingredients.
SOFT, NON-SPICY, NON-ACIDID FOODS?:
I just had a dental procedure and can only eat soft, non-spicy, non-acidic foods for two weeks. Any suggestions of the best places to get soup in Bethesda, Rockville, DC?
Any other suggestions of good restaurants for my short-term limitations? I am not a vegetarian, but I don’t eat beef, pork or duck. Thanks very much
I sympathize with you — that kind of dental work is awful, and it also sound as though it’s making life temporarily difficult as an eater. I’m sorry.
How about East Pearl in Rockville for the seafood congee? Nice and soft and the flavors are unmistakably there but also mild.
I’d also suggest Passage to India in Bethesda. Go for the mulligatawny or the cream of tomato. Both are good, and will be soothing to you, I would think. There are also all sorts of curries that won’t be too spicy or too acidic. Ask your server for guidance, but a chicken korma should be just the thing — creamy and rich and mild, but full of flavor.
Good luck. And please let me know how you make out …
Gotta run, everyone. Thanks for all the great questions today. I appreciate it.
See you back next week.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
[missing you, TEK … ]