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In the restaurant world, greatness is an elusive concept. Star chefs and quirky menus may generate hype, but they don’t guarantee the consistent delivery of unique and memorable culinary experiences. Washingtonian food and wine editor Todd Kliman joins Kojo to explore what makes a restaurant great, how the experience of great food compares to art or music and who can provide it all at affordable prices.
- Todd Kliman Food and Wine Editor and Restaurant Critic, Washingtonian Magazine
MR. KOJO NNAMDIA great meal can be served anywhere, whether it's the Thai noodles coming out of a suburban strip mall or the duck confit at a white-tablecloth restaurant downtown. But when are the restaurants serving up those meals truly achieving greatness? Is it when the chef at the top of the ticket creates a menu so creative that it defies imagination, or when you serve the dish so tasty and so unique that it makes you think about food in a completely different way? Or is it simply when the combination of the food, the service and the atmosphere work together to provide a memorable experience?
MR. KOJO NNAMDISome of you will say that it's unfair to compare the experiences one might have a roadside barbecue joint to what you might have at a Michelin Star level destination. And so they've ditched their star ratings for restaurants altogether as a result. But Todd Kliman says it's a worthwhile exercise to seek out and celebrate greatness in all the corners of the restaurant universe, and that there are plenty of people achieving it in our region right here in Washington.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe joins us to explore what truly makes a restaurant great at any price point. Todd Kliman is food and dining editor and restaurant critic at Washingtonian magazine. Good to see you again.
MR. TODD KLIMANGood to see you again, Kojo.
NNAMDILast year the Los Angeles Times stopped using a universal star rating system to measure greatness in restaurants for a similar reason that they felt it didn't make sense to compare the greatness of a neighborhood restaurant to a place of fine dining. But you feel it's worthwhile to explore what all great restaurants have in common, regardless of their price point as such. How do you define what makes a restaurant truly great?
KLIMANWell, let me just say, when the Times made that move, part of me applauded it because what that does is it forces the reader to linger over the words, relish the writing and that's a great thing. People do like some kind of scorecarding and I think that's the function of the stars. And I do think that you can review a pizza parlor and you can review a (word?) . And you can review the Inn at Little Washington. I think they're all fair game.
KLIMANAnd to me. what it comes down to is, what is this place trying to do and is it succeeding in doing what it's trying? A lot of great places, when they're great they're great because they're reaching what they aim for. They're not reaching too high. They're not setting the bar too high and then failing. they're -- they really know exactly what they want to be and they're pulling it off.
NNAMDIIt's worth noting that you also dedicate an issue every year specifically to great cheap eats. But what would you say all great restaurants have in common, whether they're a paper plate pupusa joint or a traditional French bistro?
KLIMANIt's a great question and I think about it pretty much every time I go out to eat, which is all the time.
NNAMDII was about to say...
KLIMANWell yeah, actually for the 100 best issue there was one month where I went out to eat, I think it was 75 times in one month. But let me just say, I think all good restaurants have a crackle when you walk through that door. There's a sense of alertness. There's a sense of some kind of excitement. There's a sense that people are confident. And every great restaurant has that, whether it's the Inn at Little Washington as I mentioned before, where dinner for two is 5, $600 a couple, or La Limena, a great Peruvian restaurant in Rockville where dinner for two is $50.
KLIMANThey have that kind of air when you walk in, that sense that people are in command. They know what they're doing and you're simply coming into this house, as it were, and they're going to take care of you.
NNAMDIYou sense it the minute you walk in?
KLIMANYou do. You sense it fairly quickly. Maybe not the moment you walk in but you can tell within the first few moments -- first few minutes, I should say.
NNAMDIWell, let me ask our listeners, what do you think makes a truly great restaurant? Call us at 800-433-8850. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or email to email@example.com. It's also important I guess to note, Todd, that you're not like a concert reviewer sizing up a musician's performance in a single show. You don't write a review or rate a place based on one trip or the singular triumph of one dish. If you can let us peek behind the curtain for a second, what's your process for evaluating a restaurant?
KLIMANWell, it's interesting. First of all, it's an anonymous process. The restaurants don't know that I'm coming. I pay my own way. I think that needs to be said because we have so many different kinds of quote unquote "reviewers" out there in the world now. The process is to go as many times as I need to in order to write about it. I mean, fundamentally this is a piece of writing and it's trying to engage with the restaurant, trying to understand a restaurant, trying to put that restaurant into its context, whether it's -- well, actually both culinarily and culturally. Trying to really understand what they're doing and see past it as well.
KLIMANAnd that just takes a lot of visits. Usually three, there have been four. I've gone sometimes five, six, seven.
NNAMDIWell, what are the kinds of restaurants that you find typically struggle with consistency? Because that's one of the reasons you're going on more than one occasion, not only to try a variety of dishes, but also to examine them.
KLIMANWell, not necessarily. I'm going in order to collect details, and in order to collect impressions. And sometimes I get a restaurant on that first visit. Sometimes it takes me two, sometimes three in order to really fully grasp it, but I'm collecting details. Ironically the places that struggle most with consistency are the -- well, for lack of a better term, the white table cloth restaurants, which are fast disappearing but they are the places where the stakes are highest and there are publicists and there are a lot of moving parts. And dinner for two is upwards of $140.
KLIMANThose are the places that struggle most with consistency. And the places that don’t are the ethnic mom and pops, the family restaurants where they're doing those same, it might be 80 dishes at a Chinese restaurant in Rockville, but they're doing those same dishes day in and day out. The family's intact and there's not a lot of variance.
NNAMDIWhat are the kinds of things you find that restaurants struggle to maintain a top gear on a day-to-day meal-to-meal kind of basis?
KLIMANWell, it's not just the food. It's many, many things. Restaurants can degrade -- that's probably too strong a word -- but restaurants can lose their way very quickly. People who are coming to a restaurant and are focusing on service for instance are going to look at, you know, is my water glass being constantly refilled? Well, I'm also looking at something like, how are the waiters walking? The way a waiter walks tells you a lot about the sense of management that's going on. Is this a place that is relaxed and confident?
KLIMANIs -- when somebody's walking hurriedly, it communicates a sense of unease. It's little things like that. It's a constant surveying, constant scanning of the room and of the plate and of the experience to get these kind of details.
NNAMDIOkay. Let's start using some examples. For the past several years, Washingtonian has ranked Komi as the best restaurant in the area. This year it was passed by the Inn at Little Washington. What accounts for a restaurant like Komi slipping a spot?
KLIMANWell, it's a funny thing. I would liken it something to -- I would liken it to something like a 400-meter race where the winner edges out the second place finisher by seven-tenths of a second. We're not talking about a slippage, but again, it comes down to some of those details that maybe the casual diner night not notice, or would notice, but wouldn't necessarily think to articulate. What was the pacing like? Komi for example is a restaurant where you go to get away from it all in a very simple understated by very controlled way.
KLIMANAnd the last meal of our report cards, we have four people working on this issue which is a year-long project, and we have report cards. The last report card filed noted that the pacing at Komi for that last visit was faster than it had been years past, and that meal was over in about two hours. So these kinds of things add up. A dessert course that maybe wasn't as exquisite as it had been on previous visits or in previous years, and you look at a restaurant like the Inn where 35 years into this, that place is running as if it's a new restaurant with a lot of fire and a lot of imagination, and that's an amazing thing to see.
KLIMANI mean, we talk about energy, energy in the room, crackle, a sense of excitement. You can have that with a restaurant that's 35 years old if there's the right person behind it as there is with Patrick O'Connell.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Todd Kliman. He is food and dining editor and restaurant critic and Washingtonian magazine. The issue, the 100 very best restaurants is at a newsstand near you even as we speak. You were going to say?
KLIMANWell, I also think that it's interesting because so many restaurant reviews and so many different kinds of reviews out now, like Yelp, there are bloggers, they have their own little rating systems, and, you know, or Zagat, and Zagat breaks things down by food ambiance and service. But the great restaurants, even the good restaurants, it's more than that, because what good restaurants and great restaurants do is it beyond that, they add up to something, which is that they give you a sense that all is right with the world, which as we just learned in the half hour before we know is not true.
KLIMANBut they give you that illusion for the time that you're there, and that's an amazing thing. Things cohere, and there is a kind of a magic that is greater than the individual parts.
NNAMDIWell, we know that when Todd Kliman sits across from me discussing the 100 very best restaurants, that there is something right in the world. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. What was the last time you experienced a truly great and unforgettable meal in the Washington region? Where did you have it? What made it great? Call us. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a Food Wednesday conversation with Todd Kliman, food and dining editor and restaurant critic at Washingtonian magazine. The issue featuring the 100 very best restaurants is on newsstands right now. Todd, we had a really interesting conversation last fall with Ann Cashion, Diana Davila Boldin, and the food journalist Charlotte Druckman about, among other things, the difference between great cooks and great chefs. People who establish creative visions for great restaurants.
NNAMDISome of the restaurants on your list are institutions that have had several chefs over the years. How would you describe the relationship between a great chef and a great restaurant?
KLIMANWell, I will say that we need -- we could stand more cooks and fewer chefs. We are in such a moment of celebrity, of glitz, and...
KLIMANChef worship. And I think people are tuned to the wrong things. You know, you take a restaurant like Ann Cashions, Johnny's Half Shell. There's not innovative going on there. There's nothing that would merit having her on TV. Well, no. There's nothing that would lead to a producer to book her on TV. But it's a wonderful place, and it's a place that knows what it is and knows what it does, and knows what it wants to be, and things don't change, but there's something also reassuring about that fact, and the fact that Ann shops really well, you know.
KLIMANShe's looking for the best possible ingredients she can get. She presenting them simply, honestly. The restaurant is sort of, you know, an anomaly in this day and age when things change so fast, dishes get moved in and out, chefs go every seven months and go onto a new place. There's a certain steadiness there, and you can sense it when you're in that room.
NNAMDIMm-hmm. You certainly do. Here's John in Washington D.C. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNYes, hello. I'm glad to be able to speak with you this afternoon, and I have a couple of comments. One, I'm delighted by the combination of the hundred best cheap eats and the hundred best restaurants, as I tend to do a Venn diagram on them. And through that, have discovered a number of delightful Vietnamese restaurants for the most part.
NNAMDII was just telling Todd the same thing.
NNAMDII was just telling Todd the same thing about me.
KLIMANYou do the same thing?
NNAMDIBecome a pho addict. Go ahead.
JOHNYeah. And then -- so that's what delights me about these, and I tend to go out there with my colleagues. I teach at the National Cathedral Schools, and we tend to go out for dinners which all of us can afford, and which are very good. Teachers don't earn all that much at private schools. And then the other thing that troubles me a little bit with the listings of the best or the almost best restaurants, in let's say both listings, let's call them the best both ways, is that when a restaurant is dropped, as I noticed a couple in just this February issue of the Washingtonian, say the Four Sisters were dropped, Present was dropped amongst the Vietnamese restaurants which I have enjoyed very much. There is never any indication of the reason they were dropped. I'm always interested...
NNAMDIThat's why we have Todd Kliman in studio, precisely to answer questions like that. A restaurant drops off your list all together, what's typically going on? What accounts for their decline?
KLIMANWell, it's not decline at all, and it's shuffling.
NNAMDIOthers are rising.
KLIMANYeah. I mean, what's really interesting, you know, I went back and after things were being put to bed, I looked at the -- what we had had as the top hundred, and I noticed that there were 80 restaurants I believe it is on this year's list, that are coming in at two-and-a-half stars or better. There has not been that since I've been at the magazine which is now seven years. So what you're seeing now, you're not seeing a -- if we think of it in terms of classes, upper class, upper middle class, middle class, lower class, the middle class has expanded immeasurably in this city and in this region, and there are just many more restaurants kind of pushing into that list and doing a great job.
KLIMANI love Four Seasons -- Four Sisters, and I love a lot of the Vietnamese restaurants in and around the Eden Center. I think they're --
NNAMDIMatter of fact, it was on your recommendation that I went to Four Sisters, and we had Four Sisters on this broadcast as a matter of fact.
KLIMANYeah. I mean, it's a terrific place, and there is, you know, you mentioned putting the two lists together. I think that's one way to do it, because then you get a really, really comprehensive picture of what's actually going on in this area, and the spread and the excitement and the various cultures...
NNAMDIWhen it comes to the restaurants that are truly pursuing creativity and providing an adventure for eaters, you're very high on Little Serow, a Thai-inspired restaurant that the chef at Komi, Johnny Monis, has created in a basement just up the street on 17th Street. No sign, hanging light bulbs, strangely colored paint on the walls, but what are they doing at this place that you find so appealing?
KLIMANWell, I think it's really fascinating for a couple reasons. One is that often when you have a western chef taking on a cuisine from distant shores, there is a sense of hey, look what I'm going to do, look at my interpretation. And it's kind of an ego project, and what you end up with is a cuisine that's sort of bastardized and watered down, and you're then expected to kind of bow at the chef's knees. And what you have here is something that's very, very different. It's a humbler project, and it's also rigorously authentic.
KLIMANAnd what Johnny Monis is doing is something where he's taking the best of what he does at Komi, which is looking for high-quality ingredients, minding the details at every level of the operation, and merging that with a family-style mom and pop. And I think it's an exciting place. It's a little expensive if you think of it as a standard Thai restaurant, but those flavors are popping, they're pinging, they are sometimes scorching, and it's a really exhilarating meal in a lot of respects.
NNAMDIPopping, pinging, scorching flavors. A lot of people like to measure the greatness of a place as a food city by its delis. Washingtonians here from New York tell us every day about how much better the deli options are in the Big Apple. But you're very excited about a new deli called DGS that recently opened around DuPont Circle. What's going on there that has you so psyched?
KLIMANWell, psyched. I haven't heard that word since high school.
KLIMANYes, exactly. I like a lot of what they're doing. What this place is, is it's not an old school deli. I don't think that kind of model can work, and certainly restaurateurs have told me it cannot work in this city. This is not a deli city. There's not enough lunch day foot traffic to make that work. So what they've done is they've created essentially a contemporary Jewish restaurant. Not a kosher Jewish restaurant, but a contemporary Jewish restaurant that has deli.
KLIMANAnd what they're doing is taking a lot of the emphasis that you see in restaurants now, a lot of the focus on the artisanal, on doing things from scratch, and they're bringing that to the deli, which ironically is the way deli used to be. So making your own pickles is this big thing on the scene nowadays, but this what delis have, you know, in the 19th century, all did. They're making their own meat, smoking their own brisket to make pastrami and corned beef.
KLIMANIt's the first real deal deli I've seen in this city I think in my lifetime. And it's not perfect. There are things about it that you could quibble with, but there's a real excitement to be able to eat a really beautiful bowl of matzo ball soup, great chopped liver….
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you're so enthusiastic about a new pizza place in Brookland, that you're reconsidering your thinking when it comes to the best pie in this story -- in this area. What's the story behind Menomale?
KLIMANMenomale is a place that kind of emerged out of nowhere. It's run by two friends who came from San Francisco, and one of them is heavily into beer and the craft beer scene. The other one makes a superb pie. He's really passionate about his dough, his crust. They are doing a lot of things right. Again, you walk through that door, you can tell that you're in the presence of a place that is confident about what it's doing, and is minding those details. And it's -- the question of best pizza in Washington is a really hard one, but I would certainly put them up at the top of that conversation.
KLIMANNear the top anyway.
NNAMDIHere is Francis in Silver Spring, Md. Francis, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANCISYes. Hi. Yeah. My recent experience was over at Minibar. I was actually invited by my friend that's a chef there, Brad Reese (sp?) . And there was about 30 courses, like small dishes like almost tapas style, and it was just very interesting. Like the flavors ranged so much from dish to dish, and they were doing a lot of very interesting things with liquid nitrogen over there. And I just wanted to share that, and if you're actually able to get a reservation, I'd highly recommend it.
KLIMANThat's the question. If you're able to get a reservation. I -- it took me about three weeks to a month emailing in order to get a reservation. It's tough. It's a very tough reservation to come by. Dinner there is in this new location, and with this slightly different emphasis, is now 225 per person, not including drinks, not including tax or tip. It debuted toward the end of the year, and actually, we didn't have quite enough time before our big deadline to give it a proper look, you know, enough times where we could go and kind of get a real strong assessment of the place.
KLIMANBut it's really interesting. It's a kind of -- the ultimate kind of control freak's dinner. You are in charge of nothing, and as the caller mentioned, a lot of interesting things being done with liquid nitrogen. A lot of dishes will -- you'll bite into them and puffs of smoke will emerge out of your mouth and nose. There are a lot of beautiful touches in that meal, and a lot of delicious things, a lot of surprising things. I'll be writing about the restaurant in the next couple months.
NNAMDIFrancis, thank you for your call. We're running out of time. But you also wrote recently that the most exciting new restaurant in the area just might an Izakaya-style Japanese restaurant carved out of an old barber shop on V Street in D.C. What makes Izakaya Seki so exciting to you?
KLIMANI love this place. It's a mom and pop, but in this case the mom is the chef's daughter. He is a sushi master. He's been cooking for 50 years, ever since he was a teenager. He's in his mid-60s now. They are getting some really unusual products, fish and seafood from Japan, from different parts of America. He's got a great eye for what is exciting and fresh, and it's being presented very simply.
KLIMANAnd Izakaya is a very simple, almost tavern-like presentation of food. It's not a sushi bar. It's not a place where you go and reverentially quiet. One of the most exciting experiences I think in the city right now is to go and grab a seat, grab a counter stool, watch him work, watch him use a massive chef's knife to just knock off the top of a quail egg. You think he's going to just...
NNAMDIIt's whets the appetite, doesn't it?
KLIMANYeah. You think you're -- well, yeah. You think you're going to watch him cut off his thumb, but he's just so skilled and so economical in his movements. And the food is beautiful and simple, and there's something true about it.
NNAMDIJust about out of time. We got an email from Niem. "Another great find by Todd, my wife and I love going to Menomale to grab a great Neapolitan pizza after a long day of work." Todd Kliman, he's food and dining editor and restaurant critic at Washingtonian magazine, on which the hundred very best restaurants issue is on newsstands right now. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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