Ask Tom: Rants, raves and questions on the DC dining scene

Aug 13, 2014

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Too many 'meh' experiences to bother. Everything is super-packed and noisy, the food is underwhelming (esp. when I've had the regular menu already and know how good it can be), like they don't want to give you the good stuff, and even when I inadvertently ordered takeout from a regular place doing RW (didn't know they participated), the takeout was so rushed and sub-par i just make that week a cook at home week. I'd rather pay regular prices and get food I want.

Thanks for sharing. But I don't think every restaurant participating in this week's popular promotion is serving "underwhelming" food.  A glance at the special, lunch-only menu at Rasika, for instance, lets diners choose from among a dozen appetizers and entrees, including some of the four star's signature attractions.

 

Good morning, gang. Thanks for joining me this morning. How has Restaurant Week been treating you, and what's on your mind, food-wise?  Share away.

For my girlfriend's birthday, I currently have reservations at G sandwich for their 4-course dinner. She prefers someplace lively and I'm all about the food. In the past, we've enjoyed Rasika, Little Serow, Rose's Luxury, and Mike Isabella's other spots. Should I keep the reservations or consider another place in DC?

Keeping in mind that the space morphs from a sandwich stop into a ristorante around 5 p.m., I'd be inclined to take your significant other to a place that doesn't have cartoon vegetables on the wall. 

 

Make no mistake; Elliott Drew is a fine young chef, but if the birthday girl wants "someplace lively," Red Hen in Bloomingdale should be at the top of your list. The place is always jumping.

I just wanted to offer a sincerely appreciative shout-out to the restaurants in this city that make an effort to make non-drinkers feel welcome with their cocktail menus. As a pregnant lady who desperately misses her good wine and fun cocktails, nothing pleases me more than to find a list of creative and delicious mocktails offered alongside the booze-based versions when I go out. In particular I wanted to say thank you to Fiola Mare and Oyamel, which both go above and beyond in this area and I'd like to encourage other restaurants to consider similar approaches - it makes financial sense too! I happily paid almost $15 for two mocktails at one of the above establishments this past weekend whereas at restaurants where they don't have anything like it on the menu I tend (begrudgingly) to settle for water or a $2 club soda. Oh, and couple of bars in town also deserve some credit too - instead of being annoyed that a pregnant lady is taking up a seat at their crowded bars, the bartenders at both Bar Pilar and 2 Birds 1 Stone have graciously offered to make me really wonderful virgin versions of their drinks.

Bless you for taking the time to submit a rave and for pointing your fellow non-drinkers in some thirst-quenching directions. Your post should be a prompt for more restaurants to come up with interesting mocktails. As you point out, creative non-alcoholic drinks can be good for their bottom lines.

Tom, I remember reading your review of the restaurant that is under Heritage India on Wisconsin Ave. but can't remember its name. Is it still there and still good?

You're thinking of Malgudi, which highlights the cooking of southern India. I haven't returned since I gave it a two-star review in last year's fall dining guide, and the Yelp reviews (for what they're worth) are mixed.

 

Maybe a chatter has more recent experience with the place?

What can you do? Seriously? How about nothing. A lot of your chatters seem to be annoyed by servers asking them benign questions or graciously agreeing to do as requested with the wrong language (no problem!). Lighten up people.. being a server is hard. If they're nice, helpful, and the food arrives quick and warm, maybe table your particular neuroses and give your waiter a break on the other stuff.

You tell 'em!

 

On a somewhat random note, has anyone else noticed the trend where a server asks how you're doing and when a diner puts the question to the waiter, he or she responds with, "I'm fine, thank you for asking?"

When you tip at a restaurant, there's an implicit assumption that the tip is benefiting not just the waiter, but also the cooks, the dishwashers, and the busers. A barista - at minimum - prepares your coffee, cleans the coffee machines, and maintains the store. Give them a dollar. Also, if you're a regular and you don't tip, they notice. Oh, they notice.

And ... what happens when they notice?

Loved the food but the service was awful, probably going to wait a few months and then try it again.

My service at the Baltimore hotspot wasn't bad, but I didn't like the way the food came out of the kitchen: "As they're cooked," which one night resulted in a steak and a burger showing up even before bread and butter.

Hi Tom, we do not always have a vegetarian entree option listed on the $19.90 menu, but we CAN supplement our daily vegetarian blue plate as an option at no extra charge. Thanks!

Ah, thanks for clarifying the matter.

I took a friend to Vidalia yesterday. As usual, they had a very extensive menu for RW. As always, the food was excellent, the service polished, and the overall experience extremely pleasant. Some places obviously don't like it, but others make it a great experience at a very reasonable price. Vidalia is clearly among the latter.

Take a bow, Vidalia.

The post from the single, solo diner raised my ire. I too get seated at the bar when I have a reservation for one. The host (and sometimes management) acts like I'm being unreasonable when refusing their seating and insisting on the table I reserved. I am a petite woman and am not comfortable dining on a barstool. That's not to mention the implicit invitation some men take it as. What can I do short (no pun intended) of threatening to leave?

Who are all these unhelpful hosts? All you need to do is say, "I have a reservation. Please take me to my table." Simple as that.

Last year we did the Woodberry Kitchen so the bar is set kind of high. Open to anything delicious and fun.

"Delicious" and "fun" certainly apply to Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Adams Morgan, the Red Hen in Bloomingdale, the fledgling America Eats Tavern in McLean and The Partisan in Penn Quarter. For starters.

... is a perfect illustration of your maxim that details matter. I've had plenty of experience with Bourbon Steak, BLT Steak and Capital Grille, but only two meals at J and G. I recall the food being quite good. But on both occasions the chairs were too low and the tables were too small, making for an uncomfortable meal. Relatively trivial concern, maybe - but enough to make me choose one of the other three aforementioned places when I'm in a steakhouse mood...

Did you know J & G is morphing into something completely different, with chef Barry Koslow in the kitchen? He's going to preside over a Spanish/French/Italian restaurant called Pinea next month.

We went to Macon a few days before your review and as a whole agreed with your review. Our meal was above average and the service was very good, but I would not give it more than 2 stars. Living near there, we were just happy to have that type of restaurant so close and able to easily go to (though we needed a reservation on a Wednesday night and the place was packed) when the MIL was in town to babysit. Location, location, location can really go a long way, and I mean that in a good way!

Macon Bistro & Larder opened with such promise! I dig the handsome green interior and the chipper staff, but the cooking has been really inconsistent. 

I think it makes sense to tip a little from time to time if you are a daily customer (and especially if someone remembers your usual order), but I see a distinction between workers who are paid a certain wage that does not assume tipping (i.e., fast food, coffee shops) vs. those who are paid much (MUCH) less because tipping is supposed to make up the difference (regular restaurants). Not that anyone is getting rich on either, but I always make the effort to tip at a restaurant, whether eating in (20%+) or picking up to go (~15%), whereas tipping at an establishment that is subject to regular wage laws is, in fact, entirely optional.

Makes sense to me, and I bet the places you go for take-out remember you!

The kids are off at camp and we are headed to Annapolis next week for a couple days. What are some not-to-be-missed spots to eat walkable from the downtown area (as we plan to leave the car parked for the duration and stay on foot)? O'Leary's seems to get a lot of press. Is it worth the attention? Thanks.

O'Learys used to be good. No more, at least based on some meals I had there awhile back.  You'll have better luck in Eastport at Vin 909 Winecafe where you should follow the Rule of Three P's: pizza, pasta and pudding.

Hi Tom -- I'm heading over to Istanbul and Athens later this month. Are there any 'can't miss' restaurants that come to mind?

There's a can't-miss tour, conducted by Istanbul Eats, you ought to add to your itinerary.  It was one of the highlights of my trip to Istanbul several years ago.

My husband and I are taking the train down from Baltimore Saturday to visit the National Gallery. We'd like to have a nice lunch somewhat nearby (can be several blocks or even cab ride away).

I'd stroll or Uber over to any of the following: Jaleo for tapas, Oyamel for tacos and ceviche and Zaytinya for mezze. All three spring from the imagination of Jose Andres and all are very good.

As a restauranteur I'm ashamed. We are in the 'Hospitality' business. Not in business to say No!

Well, customers aren't always right, but in the case above, the poster had every right to be given a table of her own.

Seriously, where are these places? I, too, am a petite woman who has often dined solo, with or without a reservation, in various cities, and I don't recall EVER having this problem. I'd like to know which places to (continue to) avoid.

Original poster, are you with us?

Mintwood Place did a great job with their Restaurant Week menu and preparation. The half chicken was terrific - and perhaps more than a half. The burrata and kale salad was great and also full size. The risotto was great. I wish I could get a second reservation!

See how much good will a restaurant can engender when it takes the promotion seriously?

I've definitely noticed this, and it makes me worry a little about the server. Has no one asked you that yet today? Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it???

Ha!

Tom, I was shocked by your review of Macon Bistro and Larder last week. I really expected it would have rated better. We live nearby and have been twice--both times we thought the food was really good, especially the pork dish, which you noted was good, but also the short ribs, chicken and waffles, and fried green tomatoes (our bacon wasn't tough). Maybe we just have been lucky. You noted a consistency issue, but so far, we've only seen pluses, both in the food and service.

"Satisfactory to good" -- a 1.5 star rating -- seemed to fit my three or so dinners at Macon. Really, the design interested me more than the food.

Vin 909 is the best place in town!

Glad to get a second on the idea. It's been awhile since I've eaten there.

Do you have any sugestions of where I might eat? Willing to eat almost anything, will be solo and have a fairly open budget. Don't drink alcohol so that is not a concern. Thank you

South Africa, anyone? I've not been.

I find that RW is a mix of average, sub par (i.e major attitude from server if you don't buy any upsell) and "great" experiences. I like it because it gives me an opportunity to try and even be aware of some new restaurants I have not heard of, and every year I find at least one "gem" that makes me RW worthwhile. This year this gem came earlier than expected at Osteria Morini, a place I wanted to go for a long time but never had the right "excuse" - for which RW fit the bill. The place turned out to be more casual than I perceived in the media reviews (sorry!) plus the service was impressive (friendly and with a "yes, sure we can do that" attitude) and the food was definitely better than anything else I had in the city for Italian served in a sophisticated environment (except for Fiola Mare which I think is a different category still). Even though I don't live or work close to Navy Yard, I will definitely make plans to go back as soon as I can and take guests and friends there because I found it to be so much more than "average" service and "ok" food we find in most of the city. My suggestion for RW explorers would be, take it for what it is "a good deal to explore new places" and be ready for surprises when a restaurant staff takes it for what it should be ie. appreciation for customers who try or choose your restaurant in a slow week. P.S. Even though I lived here for over 15 years my feelings were similar to the opening comments until 2 years ago, and I even avoided eating out during RW week because of my perception. I am glad to say I was wrong :-)

Great post. Thanks for chiming in.

I've called to make reservations for just myself and been told that the restaurant doesn't allow single reservations and that I'd have to sit at the bar.

That's nuts. Did you know Open Table allows for solo diners?

Tom, I enjoyed your first bite today on the new Masala Art. Is the original one in Tenleytown as worthwhile? It's near where we live, but we've never actually visited.

I like the original. Having eaten there recently, however, I'd give the edge to the fresh face in Southwest.

Last night I was at Equnoix for restaurant week, and I would say it was the worst restaurant week experiences I have had the last 10 years. The appetizer was called Watermelon and Sweet Red Pepper Gazpacho. This dish was a few cucumbers with tomato juice poured on top. There were no sweet peppers, or watermelon, not even a taste of watermelon. I had a few bites, and left the rest, no where near what it claimed to be, and it wasn't worth finishing. We had to ask for the bread, it comes and it is two pieces of over dry burnt bread. I asked for more, and the waitress said, "I will ask". I ordered the salmon, and I said that I would like it cooked medium, waitress says "we do all our salmon that way". My salmon comes and it is slightly seared on the outside and totally raw on the inside. The waitress never even passed by to see how our food was, I had to flag her down, which took a while, as my friend continued to eat her meal, of course. The waitress comes over and agrees that my salmon was raw, and said we will cook you another piece, and takes my plate with my fork. Later my new meal comes, its dropped in front of me, and the waiter quickly walks away. I look down, and see I don't have a fork. I again had to flag the waiter down to ask for a fork. Really? Meanwhile my friend is almost finished eating her meal. So, basically I ate by myself, and at that I had no appetite left, and could not even eat more than 3 bites. I left with a doggy bag. My torte came next, all I could do was to take a little taste. I know these restaurants are busy during restaurant week, its time to show their best, and their wait service should be top notch, which it was far from. The waitress brought us some miscoto after dinner drink which, I really did not want, since I had already had a cocktail. Just thought I would share my experience.

Ouch. Doesn't make me eager to return to Equinox!

Hi Tom: Love your chats. I'm actually in the industry. At the last couple places I've worked as a server, the management has discouraged the use of "ma'am" to address female guests (but never discouraged the equivalent, "Sir") Maybe it's my southern habits, but I don't find any problem being addressed as ma'am -- and I'm only 30! Has this changed? Am I hopelessly old fashioned? What would women like to be addressed as, if not ma'am (there really doesn't seem to be any solid alternative -- "miss" sounds more patronizing to me than "ma'am")?

Let's throw this one out to the ladies.  (To these ears, "ma'am" has a pleasant ring.)

My team at work is seeking a place in downtown DC to take out some important clients. Any suggestions? Not to sound shallow (although it sort of does), but we're looking for a place that has not only great food but great name cachet, too. Any cuisine is OK. In terms of adventurousness, we're looking to accommodate a wide variety of palates. Thanks!

What about Joe's, the downtown seafood (and steak) import from Miami?  Or Aggio, the Italian restaurant in Friendship Heights from Bryan Voltaggio?

I wonder if people take RW too seriously. Maybe it is because RW for me is lunch, not dinner, but I enjoy simply getting a high-end meal for $20 (plus taxes, plus tip ...) and haveing something much better than lunch sandwich fare. A special dish is a plus, not an expectation - really, most of what is served is pretty good! Really! Enjoy! Call out to RIS for the cucumber/blueberry cold soup. The only thing that would have made it better would have been for it to be 95 that day instead of 85; it would have been even more refreshing.

Cucumber and blueberries? I'm trying to wrap my tongue around that combination. Thanks, though, for sharing your opinion.

Cape Town is a culinary paradise. There are too many amazing restaurants to list. Among the higher-end places we enjoyed were Jardin, Baia, Codfather, and Roundhouse. If you spend a day or two in wine country (and you should), the town of Franschoek has more incredible restaurants in a few-block stretch than most large cities; it's like all the great restaurants in Napa/Sonoma in one town.

Reader to the rescue!

I'm beginning to wonder about me as I can only think of one time where I was made uncomfortable by a guy at a bar while I ate dinner alone. The bartender stepped in as this guy was a "regular" and tends to get very very drunk. But most of the time, everyone else is minding their own business. Interesting conversations with people, certainly - but men assuming I'm there for anything other than dinner or a decent beer? Nope. So either I'm rather hideous or maybe we should stop assuming guys are trolling for extra activity?

I'm with you. Sometimes a seat at the bar is just ... a seat at the bar.

What on earth is wrong with "ma'am"? How about "madam"?

"Madam" sounds a bit fancy, no?

The Columbia Room also deserves praise. Over the years I've taken 3 non-drinkers (and many drinkers!) there. The bartenders always seem to take it as a fun challenge to come up with good non-alcoholic cocktails. There's always the sense that they are taking them as seriously as the hi-test drinks.

Thanks for adding to our booze-free list.

Headed out to Santa Fe for Indian Market week. Any dining suggestions?

Here's my last dispatch from Santa Fe.  Make time for at least one green chile burger!

No issue with "ma'am (I'm 33). "Ms." makes sense if someone knows your last name, but doesn't really work on its own. But, like many debates in this chat, it's hard to care or get bent out of shape about such things, in my view.

"Ms" sounds so official!

I love Lemongrass for Thai food. And the cocktails at next door Metropolitan are really good (though the food and service is uneven in my experience). Also, there's this classic crab shack on the bay called Cantler's Riverside Inn. It is not fine dining by any means, but the beer is cold and the fish is fresh.

Cold beer and fresh fish? Count me in. Cantler's is a hoot.

 

That's a wrap for this week, folks. See you next week! (Now, back to my leftovers ...)

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Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s sidewalk.com and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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