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.
Time to Start Waiting in Line for Rose’s/Bad Saint — And, Can I Designate A Time Slot?:
A friend is visiting from out of town this weekend on Saturday night and I would like to show him the best of D.C. We need to eat at or slightly after 8pm.
What time, based on history, would be my best bet for starting to wait in line at Rose’s Luxury or Bad Saint? Also, once I make it to the front and speak with the hostess, could I designate 8 or 8:30 as our time, as opposed to first come first served?
Thanks in advance–this will be really helpful for purposes of planning!
I’d arrive at either place around 4:40. In the case of Rose’s, actually, better make that 4:30; there might even be people already waiting.
As for designating a time, I want to say you can do that, but I, myself, have never done it, and I’d like to hear from others out there whether this is, in fact, a thing you can do.
Going away lunch at Zaytinya; thank you!:
Three colleagues and I took our boss to lunch at Zaytinya yesterday based on your suggestion last week.
We enjoyed the beautiful weather and delicious food. I ordered the 4-course lunch for $25 and it was easily enough to share. I had not been to Zaytinya in a number of years, but I will definitely be going more often.
You’re very welcome. I’m glad to hear that worked out so well for you.
It’s a pretty safe bet for a gathering like that, where you have different people and different tastes and you want it to be festive but you don’t want it to be too expensive, and you want to be somewhere nice but not overdone, etc., etc. That, really, is where a place like Zaytinya shines.
You mentioned that you hadn’t been back in a while, and it’s got me thinking — Zaytinya is a really good restaurant, and when it opened it was the thing, everyone wanted to go, and it was buzzed about constantly.
Now, there are a ton of restaurants in the city that have followed in its path — a setting of lively unpretentiousness with good, ambitious cooking. And every couple of months, it seems, there are new places that displace the old, buzzy places.
But what happens to the formerly buzzy places? They lose their buzz, but do they lose their quality. In my experience, not really. It’s an odd thing to think about — a place that once was trendy and buzzy, and now isn’t. But its spirit is trendy and buzzy, it wants to be seen as trendy and buzzy.
I don’t know. Just tossing it out there … Chew on it …
Social marketing and the restaurant world:
I enjoy reading your chats/articles every week. The last couple of weeks there have been discussions about the “maybe” promotional social marketing of a local restaurant in the city.
Though kind of cheesy no matter how you look at the situation I think another aspect of social marketing in the restaurant scene that should not be overlooked is restaurants who give access/free food to some of the local blogs for good press. Most of these reviews are fairly obvious when you read them and I guess there is real no harm in them? I guess what really gets into my crawl is that most of these are restaurants that have big time chefs or they are part of a collective restaurant group who trade access for glowing local press.
I’d also complain about the start of the Wizards season but that is another rant for another day 🙁
Ah, yes, the Wizards. Decide to go small, because Golden State did and won a ‘ship, but Golden State has amazing versatility and THE best shooter who has ever played the game. Big men aren’t gone, and you can see that in a lot of the teams who are rebuilding and developing. The Wizards are old up front, and brittle. They need a stretch 4 for the kind of game they’re now playing, but no one on the roster fits that definition. So, it’s going to be an up and down year, I think, unless Otto Porter can man that spot with regularity. But he’s about 114 pounds, so he’s going to get hammered by the teams with size.
Annnnyway, back to food …
The thing is with the bloggers — yes, they are plied with free food. And even if they mention that (some don’t), it doesn’t matter. The word is being put out. And the pictures are being put out.
It’s not even just that, though. It’s the other outlets, like the City Paper and Eater, who generate an s-load of content. I think they both do a good job with what they do. But what they do is not what I think the average person understands that they do. These sites don’t have the big budgets to have their person eat out regularly and comprehensively and know what these restaurants are doing. But to read all the copy, you would think (and I think the average person does think) — ah, they’re plugged in; they know what’s happening; I’ll trust them. To read a report of a place about to open, you might think: oh, this is a place I need to know about and go to. But that report is written without (usually) any knowledge of the dishes over time and the quality of the service, etc.
There’s just a lot that’s being put out there, all the time, and the chatter is loud and intense. And that chatter, as I’ve been saying, is not always informed chatter. Or, it’s informed, but it’s informed by certain sensibilities, sensibilities that have been shaped and molded by p.r. At the very least, what you have is a chatter that is incredibly self-reinforcing, with nearly everybody on the inside listening to everybody else on the inside (many of whom have been listening to the p.r. narratives).
As I’ve been saying, I think it’s vitally important to keep apart from this, from all of this. That’s my view of what my job ought to be, but it’s also, I’ll admit, my inclination. I’m not outer-directed.
Report from the field: The Riggsby, in DC:
On an unexpected afternoon off, I headed for lunch. I agree that the sardines are delicious, but $15 for 2 small fish? Not much value in that.
The schnitzel was fairly aggressively priced as well, but the portion size was substantial, and the dish (along with the warm potato salad) was a winner.
The place has gotten a lot of critic love, and the food is solid, but don’t you think the prices are a little absurd?
I wonder whether the price for those sardines has gone up. I say that, because I don’t recall thinking the dish, when I ordered it, was overpriced, and you all know — KNOW — how I think that there are a ton of places in this city that gouge, that are incredibly overpriced for what they deliver.
A regular reader recently reported a not-so-great meal there, and that, along with your comments, makes me think a revisit is in order. Thank you.
The food, two of the three times I went, was more than solid; it was excellent. The other time was what I would call good, maybe slightly more than good.
But solid? If the food were merely solid, and at those prices — yes, I’m with you; I would think that the place was gouging me.
Speaking of sardines, I recently had the best sardines I’ve had in ages. I mean it: ages. The gorgeous, exquisitely rendered, impeccably fresh sardine tartine at the new Convivial.
There was a lot of talk last week about Convivial and The Dabney, with some of you getting in your early reports on both places. Convivial seemed to me to be the better place, to go only off of the quickie reviews you all posted.
One visit to each is not nearly enough to say, and it’s unfair also to compare the two places, which are, it has to be pointed out, completely different in intention — but having gotten (or got, in New Yorker-speak 😉 all of that boring qualification business out of the way, I will say that Convivial was the most exciting meal I’ve had at a new restaurant this year. And maybe last year, too. More to come. But what I would not give, right now, for another plate of chef Maupillier’s boudin noir-stuffed ravioli with chestnut puree and mushrooms. Dear God …
You nailed it on the head with Zaytinya. It is my go to spot when I have out town guests. It can easily accommodate every dietary need. I too remember when it opened and the buzz that surrounded the restaurant.
I don’t think they need keep trying or push to be trendy or buzzy. I think Washingtonians know the value that Zaytinya provides to the city in terms of dining experience from start to finish.
Thanks for chiming in …
No, I’m not saying that they need to, or that other, similar places need to. It’s just interesting to me to look around at these spots and wonder how they keep the customers engaged.
Maybe not Zaytinya so much, it’s in guidebooks that reach tourists who are coming from all over the country and the world, and it’s been around for over a decade, which in the restaurant world is an eon. (We should come up with some sort of dog-year equivalent, don’t you think? One restaurant year = 7 years?)
But what about places without that longevity and reputation? What about them? You look at them, and you think — trendy, buzzy. Only they’re not trendy and buzzy anymore. So what are they? And how do they survive without trendiness and buzz?
Blogs and p.r., cont.:
About blogs posting favorable reviews, check out “Bitches who Brunch.” That is one site if you want to see slanted reviews based on comped dining experiences.
The most glaring review I saw from them was their excellent review of the brunch at NoPA by the Verizon Center. It was funny because my wife had brunch there around the same time — it could not have been more different. Hands down one of the worst brunches I have had in this area.
Well, that’s not to say that the brunch the Bitches had wasn’t wonderful and amazing and perfectly exquisite. It could have been. We don’t know. But yeah, not much benefit of the doubt to be extended there.
But you know, all of it’s bad.
Just for an example, and a really small example, an example that might seem really harmless — you’ve all seen these click-baity list-type articles: Ten Best Sandwiches in DC, that type of thing. Lots of sites do them. The average person reads that article, and thinks: this is very useful; I’m glad someone has gone around and compiled this very comprehensive list; I’ll rely on it for next time.
Well, if that site is Serious Eats, I trust it. I trust that the writer has eaten at more than 10 places to come up with 10 recommendations. But when you go further down on the scale, I don’t trust it. I don’t know, but I strongly suspect, that the writer has not eaten at even 10 of those recommendations. I don’t know, but strongly suspect, that the writer has culled some of those recommendations from other sites, like, say, this one. I don’t know, but strongly suspect, that fewer than half of those recommendations are those the writer has visited.
And as I said, this is just one instance I could cite. I could cite dozens upon dozens.
The point is not even the instances I could cite, though. It’s that p.r. — direct p.r., indirect p.r., people with p.r. sensibilities, people without a filter to recognize or care about p.r. when they encounter it — is such an enormous part of the food world. And most people on the outside just have no idea.
The sad thing is, though, that most people, if they were to learn about these things, probably would not care.
The Mosaic District in Merrifield:
I’ve recently had a chance to wander the Mosaic District in Merrifield and have been impressed with the options compared to, say, National Harbor. Brine, Matchbox, Four Sisters, Cava, Teds Bulletin, amongst others.
Not all unique restaurants, but I’d be happy to dine there. It seems the developers have gone out of their way to attract some local names.
National Harbor, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything I’d go out of my way for. It doesn’t help that parking is relatively expensive for an out of the way place.
I think that’s fair.
But I really don’t think Mosaic, for all its aims, has achieved them. With the loss of Gypsy Soul — a big loss — I don’t think there’s a real destination spot in the mix.
National Harbor is very meh. The best spot there is the new Succotash, and I’m not a fan. Some good dishes — the dirty fried chicken and the hummingbird cake, especially; they’re keepers — but there’s a cheesiness about the operation, as if it were set in a themed hotel across from a convention center in Orlando. Management hasn’t done a good job of teaching the staff what the place is trying to do and the details of the menu. It’s too bad; there’s promise there.
Trendy and buzzy, cont.:
I think you answered your own question. Ray’s The Steaks was, when it opened, fairly trendy and buzzy. It’s not anymore, but it still serves, per your own review, great food at reasonable prices.
Plus, this: “And I still can’t get over how good the key lime pie is after all these years.”
Agreed about the quality and the value.
But Ray’s was never, ever trendy. Nothing trendy about its look, its feel, its decor, etc. Its crowd is decidedly un-trendy. And I think Ray’s is proud of this. It has worn so well, in part, I think, because it was never trendy to begin with.
It also was never buzzy, except, maybe, among the small crowd of foodies who read the first reviews and came and supported it.
Speaking of first reviews … I think mine was the first, and it was also the second or third review — food review; I’d written a lot of book reviews by that point — I’d done. Well, my editor at the City Paper didn’t believe my rave. Ray’s didn’t fit the profile of a steak place. Arlington? Votives on the tables? Really low prices? And my editors there were skeptical about everything. They probably insisted on having their parents show them their birth certificates.
Over-rated restaurants, cont.:
Since you brought up lists about best places serving “fill in the blank” I would like to add District Taco as being very over-rated.
I forgot which online publication listed them as being one of the top 50 taco places in the US. What was astonishing was this publication listed District Taco ahead of Taco Bamba, which is just criminal. The two could not be anymore different. For the record Taco Bamba hands down more superior than District Taco.
Those guides are just terrible.
It’s funny, I just finished a second reading of the new Michel Houellebecq novel, Submission — which, by the way, I’m writing about this week for OtherWise; look for it later today.
Anyway, there’s a little bit about food and gastronomy in the book, and I had to laugh when I came to a line about restaurant guides “whose remarkable flights of lyricism evoked pleasures decidedly superior to the dishes one actually tasted.”
Houellebecq being Houellebecq, of course, he compares restaurant guides with “escort sites.”
Blogs and p.r., cont.:
RE: Bloggers! As someone who has, let’s say connections to the business, when I eat in restaurants where I am known, my experience is usually stellar.
Why? Because they know me and want to impress me. So when I tell friends about a wonderful experience I always say, now remember, I RECEIVED this treatment because of my affiliation, you may not have the same experience I had.
If a friend then goes to the same place and tells me how awful it was I always call up the establishment and say this was my friends experience and you need to know that this shouldn’t be happening. I could not in good conscience recommend that my friends go to a restaurant and not tell them I get special treatment. So these bloggers are wrong on so many levels.
And that’s good of you to do, both with your friends, in alerting them, and in admonishing the restaurants.
But again, I want to say that the problem is much larger than just this taking of comped meals and writing glowing reports on a blog.
Mosaic District, cont.:
Mosaic District was a lot better when there was just the Roy Rogers and the body shop that used to be German restaurant with all the decorations on its roof etc. I find the Mosaic very contrived and can find better food in Clifton, Manassas and Centreville. Mosaic is trying way to hard to be hip and cool which makes it very unhip and not kewl.
Bear’s Barbecue and Catering — do a search on Facebook for their page. have a great Thanksgiving Sir!
Oh, Clifton …
I do love your special brand of crank.
And I’ll take a look at Bear’s, thanks.
It’s interesting. I mean, I find it contrived, and you find it contrived, but I wonder if most of the people out there, even the ones reading this chat, do. I’d love to hear what people think.
Not whether some of the shops are good, or some of the restaurants are good — but whether you find it contrived. Or not.
Had a fantastic meal at convivial, though the kitchen did make one fairly serious mistake (I won’t say what since it was almost certainly a one time thing).
In response, chef maupillier came out, explained what happened (no excuses), apologized profusely, chatted with us and brought us one of EVERY dessert (each better than the last). We left more than happy (and full!)
Wow. Now, THAT’S making it up to someone.
More than making it up, I’d say.
I wonder — do you all think that this should become the new industry norm? A restaurant botches something significant, and wham-o — out comes every dessert on the menu.
Todd – headed to Charleston later this week. Plans include dinners at The Ordinary, FIG, and McGreadys.
Lunches are a bit up in the air, but considering Leons, Chez Nous and Butcher and Bee, Husk and Raw 167. Couple of questions – any can’t miss dishes at any of these places? We have 3 lunches – can you help direct us? Finally, ant breakfast recommendations? Thanks!
For breakfast: at least one of those meals should be at Hominy Grill, still good after all these years.
Butcher and Bee, you should definitely keep that one. And the porchetta, if they have it, is hard to ignore. But really, any sandwich there ought to be really good.
Leon’s is not a place to consider; it ought to be a definite. Best meal I had on my last trip down. Get the char-grilled oysters, the shrimp roll, and the fry-up. Really, though — I’d trust any dish on that menu to be good. I didn’t have the fried chicken, and a lot of people I know and trust rave about it.
Report back! We want to live vicariously through your adventures! …
I wrote in about the Convivial desserts.
It may have partly been because we were 7 people and had a $450 bill…
Ah. Well, that kind of changes the picture now, doesn’t it?
With a bill like that, it’d almost be an oversight NOT to send out every dessert on the menu.
He should have sent out some desserts from neighboring restaurants, too. 😉
Mosaic District, cont.:
I agree that Mosaic does not (and probably will not) have a destination restaurant.
They have combined a few anchors (Target, MOM’s) with a number of decent small shops (liked the wine store as well as the fishmonger) and some restaurants where I’d be happy to eat.
The rents are probably at a level where you’re not going to make a discovery like Bangkok Golden or Enat. If I had some shopping to do and wanted to include a pit stop, I’d take it over driving around to individual places and then off to dinner.
I agree with what you say about interesting, small independent family-style places.
But the entire thrust of the place, it seems to me, is to offer places of the aim and caliber of Gypsy Soul. And not one, as there had been, but three or four.
Also, in full disclosure, I was one of those who wrote in last week to talk about convivial. This was my second meal there. No affiliation, urging to post or kickback, i swear.
Yeah? You say you are, but how can I know for sure? Who can I trust anymore? 😉
“May vee see your papers, please?”
Blogs and p.r., cont.:
Washingtonian, aside from the work of you and your food team, largely consists of the click-bait that you describe. There’s an article celebrating the top 10 DC steakhouses, when you wrote an entire article on how DC steakhouses are largely overpriced and mediocre.
The good news is that consumers now can cross-reference places between you, that other DC critic, Yelp, friends/colleagues, etc. before dropping significant money on dinner. You have to believe that people can perceive the biases in everyone’s reviews and factor in their own preferences. As a Washingtonian reader, we have to discern between the real Food section articles and the click-bait articles. Fortunately, most of us are more than capable and the rest will just have to eat at over-hyped places fueled by PR juggernauts.
Also, my wife used to work in hospitality PR. It would irritate me how mediocre places got national praise. Fortunately, the hype they built helped launch places, but if the place was poor-mediocre, it usually failed anyways. A place like Serendipity is a prime example (and was not one her clients).
Thanks for chiming in on this …
Nearly everything you say is true, and it’s one of my continual frustrations with this gig. I don’t know that people are discerning enough to know what is legit and what is not — that’s my only real disagreement. I think some are. I think most are not. But then, I don’t tend to have a lot of faith in what “the people” think, find great, etc.
Mosaic District, cont.:
I live right next to the Mosaic and usually walk there. Currently none of the restaurants there get one excited to dine out. I think that will change with the arrival of Requin (the Jenn Carrol and Mike Isabella concept) and then with the arrival of their Kapnos brand later in 2016.
At the very least, I think we can say that it was a really smart business decision for chef Isabella to move in there. There’s definitely a vacuum.
Mosaic District, cont.:
DGS is destination worthy to me.
The downtown DC location, the one I’ve eaten at most recently, is no longer that in my mind, sorry to say. Disappointing treatment of whitefish (too much brightness), a matzo ball soup without the previous richness and flavor, pastrami that lacked the lusciousness of earlier sandwiches …
Off to lunch, everyone — thanks so much for the questions and commentary today.
Be well, eat well, and let’s do it again next Tuesday at 11 …
And look for a new OtherWise, which should go up this afternoon. (And thanks to all of you who have been reading these columns every week, and supporting the range of topics and opinions. I appreciate it.)
[missing you, TEK … ]