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.
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.
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: MOMOFUKU CCDC:
So I finally ate at Momofuku — not a huge meal, just a couple dishes and a few things from Milk Bar, so not the best sample size, but … I was kind of underwhelmed. It could’ve been startup jitters, as it’s still relatively early in their existence, but it all just felt so familiar–and in each case I liked whatever the Momofuku dish reminded me of better than the Momofuku version.
Do you suspect this was this an off night for the kitchen? Or is it just that in the decade-plus that it’s taken David Chang to bring his restaurants to DC, the menu, and general approach has become much more commonplace?
Part of me really wishes that he had opened something totally outside the Momofuku brand — something less polished and a little more daring. Would’ve fit in better with the current scene, and been much more exciting.
I think that deep down that’s what David Chang would have wanted, too. But he’s got a big company now, and a brand, and a lot of people to think about, and a place like this is going to be much more attractive to the money people who seed things.
I also think that kind of place is a lot easier to do in your home base city. Outposts of empire are not places that tend to take chances. They reaffirm and ratify, or at least that’s what they attempt to do.
Chef Chang is going to push as hard as he can, I think, against these confines. I spoke with him yesterday, and he told me that Monday he’s going to roll out the first of his take-out lunches — pupusas, fashioned by one of the crew’s cooks, Karla Rochac. Next up: French dip sandwiches.
The back room, meanwhile, is set to become a kind of restaurant-within-a-restaurant. Chang is still mulling it, but suggested to me that it will be: a.) more expensive (but not more formal), b.) a place to get away from noodles, c.) steak-filled, and d.) a venue for him to try out all the things he talked about wanting to do when I sat down for my long interview with him a month ago.
Your meal sounds slightly worse than my last meal there, which was, yes, underwhelming — after two very good meals. There are excellent dishes there, like the beef noodle soup — liquefied prime rib — and the various buns, although I will say that my most recent pork buns were fatty, and that the shrimp inside the shrimp bun looked and tasted like a cross between a Filet o’ Fish and a McDonald’s hash brown patty. There are dishes that are smart and intriguing on the page — in conception — but the execution has been poor.
When I spoke with him, Chang was not oblivious to any of this. He’s very aware.
We’ll see how the operation rides out these early stumbles.
DECONSTRUCTED TURDUCKEN REPORT:
I promised to report back on my deconstructed turducken (turkey legs, duck legs, and chicken thighs cooked in duck fat).
I supplemented the duck fat with a bit of lard so that the meat would stay immersed. Cooking it was fairly easy. It cooked on the stovetop while the rest of the turkey roasted in the oven. The turkey legs had a tendency to pop up, so I rotated them occasionally. I wish I’d done it the day before as taking the meat off the bone was one more thing to do at the end.
That much having been said, how did it taste? Delicious! The turkey leg meat was much easier to separate from bone and tendon than normally. I was surprised how subtle the differences in taste were between the three birds. Turkey was the meatiest of the three and the duck tasted a bit richer. I’m glad I didn’t have to do a blind taste test though.
It sounds terrific.
Do you think you’re going to try it again next year? Or too much work?
Some chefs — I think Daniel Humm is one — advocate taking apart the turkey, so that dark meat and white meat can cook independently of one another.
It’s probably smart, but you of course lose the visual appeal — a whole bird, on the plate, its skin glazed and glistening.
Did anyone at your table carp, or make a comment about how, oh, you know, it would’ve been so nice to see the whole bird, etc.?
MAPLE LAWN FARMS AND MOM’S ORGANIC MARKET:
Following up from last week’s conversation about turkeys from Maple Lawn at Mom’s vs. the farm itself …
I knew the turkey was a bit cheaper at Mom’s before I bought it, but honestly, aren’t both prices fair for a delicious, locally sourced bird?
The other chatter enjoyed the experience at the farm, while I enjoyed the convenience of Mom’s. Maple Farms and Mom’s undoubtedly benefit from the arrangement, and we get a nice choice.
I hear you.
But I think what put the chatter out was the fact that the birds were cheaper at the store than at the farm.
Buying something at the farm means that the farm didn’t have to pay for somebody to truck it to a store, and all the other costs that go along with transport.
I’ve just discovered arepas from the Arepa Zone food truck and now I can’t get enough of them! What restaurants do you recommend that have them.
I’m crazy about arepas, too.
For those that don’t know, arepas are thick corn pockets — slightly smaller than pitas, with the taste of ground white corn — that are fried or griddled, then stuffed with fillings, like pork and cheese, or beans and cheese, or egg and beans, etc, and served warm.
I prefer mine griddled to fried.
Raul Claros’s La Caraqueña, in Falls Church, makes very good ones.
I had a fantastic arepa not long ago at Cafe Azul, in Hyattsville, from Mickey Torrealba and Monica Serrano — griddled and stuffed with black beans and queso de mano. The best I’ve had in the area.
VIctor Albisu’s Del Campo has an all-arepas menu, in which the humble street snack is made haute. One of the five options is filled with lobster and smoked trout caviar, another with grilled octopus, potato, and aioli.
I understand the new The Royal has them, but I haven’t tried them yet. Has anyone?
Who else am I missing?
POSTCARD FROM … NEW ORLEANS:
I got a chance to explore New Orleans a little bit, and the small taste left me wanting for more.
What better way to start a trip to New Orleans than eating a po’ boy with a frozen drink in a dive bar? Killer Poboys offers untraditional takes on the New Orleans specialty in the back of French Quarter bar Erin Rose. I ordered a vegan (blasphemy!) sweet potato po’ boy with black-eyed pea and pecan spread, pickled shallots, and sauted greens, and washed it all down with a frozen Irish coffee which tasted a spiked chocolate milkshake. Apparently the house specialty, it goes for $3.50 before 2pm along with other brunch-type drinks, and turned out to be the perfect drink for a 75 degree December day.
I also had an excellent meal at Luke by Chef John Besh which offers French and German fare with some New Orleans twists. I wasn’t prepared to see matzoh ball soup and gumbo on the same menu at a New Orleans restaurant. The pan fried drum almandine with roasted vegetables was technical perfection and absolutely delicious. Among the items was the most potatoey tasting potato I think I’ve ever had.
Peche offered a great lunch, and possibly the best plate I’ve had all year. The inside is done up for the holidays, so the typically warehouse industrial look of the place had sort of a ski-lodge flare. I had Cajun seasoned baked drum in a mushroom broth with cheese and scallion calas (a type of dumpling) topped with roasted mushroom and chopped preserved lemon, which provided the acid that brought everything together. It was the perfect fall dish, and it made me wonder where I can find that sort of seasonal seafood cooking around DC.
For me, no trip is complete without a visit to the Carousel bar for textbook Vieux Carrés where they were invented at a bar that slowly spins while live jazz plays. It all makes you wonder if the alcohol has gotten to your head.
This time, I also made it to the French 75 bar which has the perfect New Orleans vibe: a small space full of mahogany, bartender in a white coat and bow tie, and a rum drink that come in glass tiki mugs. Fun times.
I’ll bet there’s not a soul out there reading this who isn’t jealous of you for your experiences.
What a great and tasty-sounding tour you just gave us.
It’s a great scene, a scene all its own, and yes, too much to explore on one trip.
I have to say, I’ve never tasted, let alone heard of, a vegan po’boy. Though it’s kind of hard to imagine those flavors all coming together in a sandwich, the one you had sounds kind of good — was it? What else do they have on the menu?
I’m inclined to make the deTurducken again. It was tasty and didn’t require that much additional effort. Presentation isn’t a concern as we always carve the turkey in the kitchen. The only change I would make is to cook it the day before while doing prep work and then reheat it.
I also have a nice postscript in that we now have some flavored fat for our tamales that we’ll be making at our annual Tamalada in a couple of weeks. Gotta love this time of year.
And I love that now you have a name for your dish!
Branding isn’t far off … 🙂
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: MOMOFUKU CCDC:
I, too, ate at Momofuku last weekend and had quite the opposite experience. We wanted to play it safe so we got there early, with a half hour wait at 6pm on Sunday – perfectly timed to get a drink in beforehand.
We had not one, but two attentive servers, and our water glasses never dropped below half full. The buns were perfectly steamed, which people might take for granted, but I still appreciate. Although the Momofuku ramen had me craving a bowl from Daikaya, the beef noodle soup was impeccably done, as you mentioned earlier. The fried brussels and pickle jar both added a pop to the meal. And that Ssam chili sauce -that alone could’ve been my drink of choice.
I was pleasantly surprised by my overall experience at Momofuku CCDC. Would still love to see a new concept in the back, I think it screams for one actually.
Thanks for chiming in …
I’ll second the overall quality of the service. The staff doesn’t have it easy, given the expectations, given the high volume, given the tight quarters, given the size. And yet, as you say, very on top of things, very gracious.
I too am an arepa lover, and I wonder if someone will open an arepa restaurant similar to what I’ve seen popping up in other parts of the country such as Hola Arepa in Minneapolis or Maïs Arepas in New Orleans; think classic and new takes on the arepa with a modern drink list in a hip space, sort of like what Daikaya did for the traditional izakaya.
That’d be great, wouldn’t it?
Well, assuming that the place is passionate, and relatively small, and not too scenester, and that the arepas are actually worth talking about.
I would imagine that this is an idea on someone’s drawing board, given the growing presence of arepas in restaurants, trucks, and cafes. I give it two, three years.
Though I’d hope it happens before then …
VEGAN PO’BOYS, CONT.:
The vegan po ‘boy was really good. Most importantly, they start with a classic roll. The sweetness of the roasted sweet potato is offset by the bitter greens, and the black-eyed pea/pecan spread is sort of a pesto that brings everything together.
They must be doing something right because they recently opened a stand alone store near Erin Rose. The menu stays short at the original with seared shrimp, bbq meatloaf, and pork belly joining the sweet potato.
Check it out: www.killerpoboys.com
The picture on the website looks banh mi-ish. I think that’s the shrimp.
Thanks for your description — nicely done; I can envision how it all comes together.
I’m adding the place to my list.
By the way, and slightly off topic, but what do people think about the word “killer” as an adjective. It’s big in the food world.
Dude, this ramen is killer.
That burger? Killer.
But not just the food world. You hear it a lot, in multiple contexts.
I’m interested in hearing whether it bothers anyone, or even at some level offends anyone — or do most of you take it to be simply an innocuous piece of vernacular?
REPORT FROM THE FIELD: MOMOFUKU CCDC:
I’ve been to Momofuku twice, and my experience was better than the first poster’s.
It’s always the sauces and dressings I like from David Chang, going back to an amazing brussels sprouts with kimchi sauce in New York.
On my DC visits, I loved the brussels sprouts with sweet fish sauce, the smashed potatoes (mostly because of the crazy good ssam chili sauce I could use on them), the bitter greens salad, and the spicy noodles with sausage after the leftovers sat in my frig for a day.
My only dud on the food menu was the brisket bun, where the meat was too much for both the bun and the condiments.
I enjoyed my cocktails, but unusually for me, I skipped beer or wine — both are too expensive, and the beer selection is poor.
I don’t get the hype on the Milk Bar desserts. The soft serve with crack pie was good, but not close to awesome. The cookies were fairly awful, and it was tacky to serve them in plastic.
Thanks for this.
Just from the three reports — actually four, counting my quick take in response to the first chatter who posted — you can see that there’s unevenness and inconsistency.
With high volume operations, that’s not unusual. With outposts of empire, that’s also not unusual.
When things are on, however, they’re really on. I’ve had some terrific dishes.
Thing is, the menu is not that big. You expect a greater degree of quality control with a smaller menu. And Chang made his reputation in part on his emphasis on the need for exactitude, on doing things precisely every single time. So there’s that expectation, too.
AMERICA’S BEST FOOD CITIES, IN THE POST:
I just read Tom Sietsema’s Washington DC spread in his series, The search for America’s best Food cities and was happy to see a large part of the article based on you and his search for good ethnic food.
How was that whole experience? Thank you for taking him to the suburbs.
It was a terrific day. We had a blast.
Five restaurants in one afternoon, and then later, on my own, I went out and hit a sixth.
I think that’s my personal best as a critic. Or worst. 🙂
Actually, if you count the coffeehouse where we began, Vigilante, then that’s seven eating or drinking establishments in one day. Oy.
The lone disappointment of the day was Saba, where the dishes were not at all close to the ones I had loved and written about.
A VISIT FROM DONALD TRUMP:
Question for any Restaurateur:
I was wondering how some of the well known/established minority restaurateur’s that have establishments in the District, how would they handle a visit by Donald Trump?
Would they welcome him? Fully knowing that he is a bigot, a Fascist, spews xenophobic diatribes, mocks the disabled…the list goes on. Or would they express their views to him and inform him that he is not welcome, or express their views and still serve him?
I recently spoke with Maria Trabocchi, of Fiola Mare, who told me that every presidential candidate has been to the Georgetown restaurant.
“Every” means Trump has been seated and fed.
I didn’t ask her how she feels about him. And I can’t speak for other restaurateurs. But I would guess that their position is — he’s a customer (or guest, in the parlance), like any other, and we don’t turn away customers/guests.
Now, maybe there is a restaurateur out there who has taken very public stands in the past on issues of social justice — an Andy Shallal, say, owner of Busboys & Poets — who would not cotton to the views of a Donald Trump. But I somehow doubt that Andy Shallal would turn away a customer/guest — would say, no, we won’t serve you.
100 BEST PREVIEW?:
Are any of the new restaurants that have opened this Fall (Convivial, The Dabney, Garrison…etc) have an opportunity to crack the top 20 of the upcoming Top 100 dining guide?
Also, is there any restaurant that was in the Top 10 last year that will end up dropping out of the Top 20 or have a significant fall like the The Little Inn had last year?
Will they have an opportunity? Of course they will. Had any of them opened in December, it would be a lot tougher. But all debuted in just in time for consideration.
And as I say, every year it’s a clean slate; we start all over. A newcomer, if it’s great enough, could slip into the Top 10, why not? The idea is to give a snapshot of the scene as it is right at the moment of publication.
I’m not going to share any names just yet, but as I said last week — some once-stellar performers have been showing unevenly of late, while some newbies and relative newbies have been showing out beautifully.
And … we’re out. I need to run and get lunch. Thank you all for taking part and for all of you who didn’t, but who are simply reading along — thank you, too. I appreciate it.
Be well, eat well, and stay tuned for word on Twitter and the homepage for when we move this chat to Facebook. (No chat next week.)
I know that some of you won’t be making the transition, and I’m sorry to hear that; I’ll miss you; you’ve been a big part of this community. You can always drop me a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
I’d love to hear from you.
The new operating system that the magazine is about to roll out won’t allow for chats of this kind, so this is an experiment, and I hope it turns out to be a good thing. There will be some things I miss, but I hope there also will be enough things that I like, and that you like, too, to make up for the things lost. Onward …[missing you, TEK … ]