Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema discusses the DC dining scene

Jan 18, 2012

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.

I was at the Pearl Dive Oyster Palace a few weeks ago for dinner with one other person. The meal was very good, and I think the restaurant fits well on 14th Street. After I finished eating, my fellow diner and I talked for about 10 minutes. During the after-dinner chat, a manager or shift supervisor appeared at our table and politely asked if we would mind moving to the bar area where he would buy us a drink. He clearly wanted to seat someone else at the table as there was a wait at the front door. Do you think it is proper etiquette for restaurants to do this? I'll admit that I was ready to leave anyway. We cleared the table and skipped the drink invite. But I think it would have been an uncomfortable situation if I was having an important conversation with my dining companion where I wanted extra time to sit. I guess I also object a little bit to being on a dining clock, though as a former waiter I also understand the goal of decreasing table turnover times as a way to maximize revenue (and tips for wait staff).

Pearl Dive, in Logan Circle, is one of the hottest tickets in town.

 

You say you had the table for 10 minutes after paying the bill? If I were a manager, I'd want your spot, too. I don't think you should be offended. The supervisor sounded gracious in his request.

 

Thoughts from today's audience?

 

Good morning, gang. Glad to be spending the next hour with you. I'll be away (in Denver) next week, so there won't be another dining chat until Feb. 1.

 

Let's begin.

Tom, after eating at 8 different restaurants last week, I feel special recognition is due to 701 restaurant. Do they have a new team? The restaurant was better than its been in years, great menu, fun atmosphere, the live music. Just a wonderful experience. Thank you for your notes each week, they make dining out fun.

That's great to hear about 701. Chef Ed Witt, who came to Washington after stops in San Francisco, where he worked at Jardiniere, and New York, where he cooked at Daniel, is still the talent in charge of the Penn Quarter kitchen.

I am planning an extended family celebration dinner (60th and 65th birthdays) with 19 people. Any recommendations for good restaurants in DC that can accomadate such a large party?

I could use  some more details.  As in, price range? Cuisine? Do you need a private space? 

 

Based on what you've given me, I'd steer you to Carmine's downtown for inexpensive Italian in barge-size portions;  DC Coast for moderately-priced seafood and great service downtown;  and, for something hauter, Fiola in Penn Quarter for Italian, Oval Room near the White House for modern American fare or Vidalia near the West End for upscale southern cooking and gracious hospitality.

 

I hope that helps the planner with plans.

Hi Tom, My SO and I are celebrating our 1 year anniversary at the end of the month and I was wondering if you have any suggestions for meat and potatoes at a nice place that won't break the bank and isn't a chain, between Laurel and Baltimore? I work in DC and he works in Clarksville, so we tend to stay north of the border so to speak. Thanks!

I'm inclined to send you to GrillmarX Steakhouse & Raw Bar in Olney.

One of  its best steaks is a 14-ounce rib-eye marinated in Kona coffee, sesame oil, garlic and ginger. I'd launch the entree with a bowl of the kitchen's great clam chowder and find room for anything made with potatoes (the french fries are hand-cut, and delicious). 

Congrats on your special occasion, by the way.

We were at Bistrot Lepic last Saturday night. My partner and I split an appeitizer. When the bill came, we were charged a dollar for the split plate. Nothing was said prior to the service. Is this a trend? Should diners expect such charges, etc.? Thanks.

This appears to be a repeat of a question from last week's chat, but I'll bite anyway.

 

Split charges are not unusual, but they tend to apply to main courses rather than entrees, in part because some chefs tell me they add a bit more food, or fuss with the presenation, when dishes are divided.

 

Split charges should be made clear up front, either on the menu or via the server.

 

(Curious what you split?)

Hi Tom, I'm organizing a wedding luncheon for about 10 people on a Friday in March. If possible, I'd like to have a private room or space for us since I think its easier to talk but it will be on the early side (11:30am) so maybe we sit in a main dining room if it is quiet enough. I'd like to spend no more than $40 a person and be in the Dupont/Farrugt/Chinatown area. Any thoughts? Thanks!

Does that $40 include wine, tax and tip? You don't say.

 

Places to consider:  the seafood-themed Pesce in Dupont Circle, Primi Piatti in Foggy Bottom, possibly Zaytinya near the Chinatown Metro Stop (I love the overhang that looks onto the main dining room of the Greek and Turkish small plates purveyor.)

Hi. I am a new vegan and am getting a little tired of eating pasta's and salads. Are there any places in Arlington or DC that cater to vegans that you recommend? Thanks

Vegans (and those who love them), here's your chance to sing the praises of the restaurants that help you eat well.  Bring on the suggestions.

My dream is for my husband to take me to a local french restaurant, however, he is a picky eater. Is there anything he would be able to eat? (He likes mainly chicken/not alot of veggies/loves southern food) thanks!

Poor you. Why don't you insist he take you to the charming La Chaumiere in Georgetown, where you can indulge in the classics while he fills up on French onion soup (who doesn't like cheese and bread?) and whatever hunk of meat is being featured (veal chops and beef short ribs, judging from a recent winter menu).

 

Who knows, maybe you can convert the guy?

Hi Tom, I wrote in last week asking about the wait times at Little Serow for my husband's bday. We were on a tight schedule and had to get home early enough for our sitter. Anyways, we got to LS at exactly 7pm, and the wait was 1 hour and 45 minutes. The hostess said the best thing to do is to get there at 5:30 as you suggested. Needless to say, we were pretty upset. But, the evening turned out absolutely amazing! Somehow I remembered that you had a nice mention of La Chaumiere in last years spring dining guide. I called them up and they had an opening. We had never been, so I was going solely on your review. The evening was phenomenal, start to finish. The restaurant's interior is so quaint/charming. Our waiter was extremely helpful. Food was fresh, comforting, and so flavorful. It was really just the perfect evening out on a cold night. We started with oysters and the pike dumpling. I was mopping up the lobster sauce surrounding the fluffy dumpling. Our entrees were equally impressive. We were talking about our meal there all wkd, and we can't wait to go back. Next time I want to sit by the fireplace. In fact, my husband says he might want to go back to La Chaumiere before attempting to wait it out at LS again. Thanks again!!! We would never have considered this wonderful restaurant if not for you. You made the bday boy very happy on what could have been a dud of a night after the missing out on Little Serow.

Your post makes my day. Thanks for the feedback.

 

Catch that, Lady Who Likes French (above)?

Tom - I have a meeting today very close to the Washington Post's office. Where can I go to get a bite to eat before hand? All options are on the table. Thanks!

Closest to my employer, the best food these days is at the new! improved! Mio, which has a comfortable front bar -- perfect for a solo act.

New poster, same topic - Tom, I would welcome anyone's recommendations for dining onsite at Disney World. Any kind of ethnic food OK as long as it's good and not too un-authentic (thinking Epcot here). Fine dining recc's would help too. Thanks! (already checked the websites from a previous post)

Chatters?

Tom, I thought it was previously reported that Rasika was planning to open a second location in the West End. Is that still the case, and if so when might this be happening? Thanks

Rasika West End will "probably happen the end of March," says owner Ashok Bajaj. (The delay is being caused by permits, to no one's surprise.)  The restaurateur has hired two chefs de cuisine from Mumbai to assist with both the new restaurant, at 1177 22nd St. NW, and the original in Penn Quarter

Hi Tom- First of all - thanks for the review of Woodberry Kitchen - we went for brunch last weekend and it was fantastic. We never would have found it without you!. For my question - we will be moving away from DC in about 6 months - what are your bucket list must-eats before we head out of town? I'm allergic to (and my husband doesn't eat) fish, although both of us enjoy shellfish. Beyond Rasika, which I know we need to try, what else? We've been to the Inn at Little Washington, so you can leave that one off (it was fantastic!) Thanks in advance for steering us right all the years we've lived here!

Glad to be of assistance and best of luck in your new market!

 

Before you leave us, be sure to find time for Little Serow, home to some of the most amazing Thai cooking on the East Coast; Bibiana and Fiola for terrific Italian;  The Source for its weekend dim sum brunch;  Et Voila! for the perfect Belgian repast;  the omakase menu in the rear of Sushi Taro; the Ashby Inn for a delicious getaway from the city; Seventh Hill for a pie and ... this could be a much longer list if there were more time today, but there isn't!

Hey Tom -- thanks for the chats, they are a favorite part of my week! I'm wondering if you have any recommendations for a baby-friendly Sunday brunch spot somewhere in the metro area. I'm looking to meet up with 5 girlfriends and there will be one baby. Ideally looking for somewhere w/ reservations as it's hard to stand around waiting with a wee one. Also looking for somewhere with traditional brunch food -- eggs, pancakes, salads, etc -- rather than dim sum or the like. Price isn't an issue and anywhere in the DC metro area is fine!

My tried-and-true brunch is Tabard Inn, packed with dishes both sweet and savory and within walking distance of the Dupont Circle metro stop.  The ancient dining room is clattery, so a wee one should fit in just fine.

 

Just one thing: The inn is no secret. Reserve NOW.

Haven't heard anything about I Ricci in Dupont lately -- what's the scoop on it now?

Honestly, all I get are complaints about the once-great Tuscan restaurant, mostly having to do with surly servers.   I haven't dined there in years. Has anyone else?

Funny all the chat about La Chaumiere today... Husband and I went a few weeks ago and all I could think was, boy was Tom right about the benefit of being a regular! The food was great, but the service left a LOT to be desired and was a very obvious, in our faces departure from the way the regulars were treated. Example, when ready to take our order, our waiter walks up to the table, stands right next to me and says, "Yes?" Um, ok, is that the current standard for asking if we're ready to order? The worst though was when I poured cream in my coffee, it curdled! This happened twice before they got the hint that it was the cream that was the problem, not me. They did apologize, but treated me as if it was somehow my fault. As I said, the food was delicious, but we won't be back.

Thanks for the field report.

Good morning, Tom. I believe you were recently in Lima writing about the food scene - have not found your postcard (& separately would love to know how you enjoyed/didn't your time in general, whcih doesn't usually fit into the pc format). When will the card publish?

Um, if I make my deadline today, possibly this  Sunday, in the Travel section! I'll be focusing on one interesting restaurant rather than the usual three this round.

Hi Tom. In the near future I will be having an early morning doctor's appointment near 19th & M NW, not too far from DuPont Circle. As I can't eat before the exam, I would like to go out for breakfast afterward. Can you suggest any place(s) for breakfast in that area. Thanks!

Not exactly super-close, but you might want to audition the ginormous new Hamilton, from the Clyde's group, on 14th Street.  I wrote about it for today's Dish column.

Hi Tom - Thanks for your chats - I'm a frequent lurker, but today have a question. I'm amazed at how average the restaurants in McLean are. Are there any that you would recommend, in any price range, as meriting 2 stars or more?

A food friend (and frequent dining partner) who lives in McLean tells me Pulcinella is good for family-style Italian, J Gilbert is fine for basic steaks and Tachibana is reliable for sushi. I've not been to any of them (and totally agree with your assessment of the area).

Hi Tom, Just thought I'd let you know about the great experience my wife and I had at Ardeo for restaurant week. First of all, they let us order ANYTHING off of their normal menu. I had the brussels sprouts (yum!), suckling pig, and sweet potato pie. My wife had a spinach salad with crispy gnocchi, a pizza with wild mushrooms and a pecan pie. It was all fantastic. But the best part was that when the server looked at our check, she realized that my wife's dinner cost less than the restaurant week deal, so they made sure to charge us the regular price. It only saved us 3 bucks, but we thought it was awesome customer service. They're doing restaurant week all this week too and we've already reserved again for Friday! Just thought you should know!

Bravo, Ardeo + Bardeo. You've just won yourself some new fans.  With one exception, the new District Commons is another RW participant that offered its entire menu to diners during the promotion.

Tom, You consistently rave about Jaleo. Since you are the king of all good food - I have listened many times and it just is a huge dissapointment. Could you take me with you next time you go to Jaleo so I can see what you are talking about. Maybe I'm going the wrong days, maybe I'm ordering the wrong food. HELP!

Sadly, the last time I ate at Jaleo, just before Christmas, I had a less than stellar (food) experience. Almost everything my posse ordered tasted muted from what I knew it could be, or had been, on previous visits. So ... maybe you DON'T want to join me there on a future investigation!

That report makes me want to go to Pearl Dive even more, Tom. I'm frankly tired of hearing the gripes and grievances about restaurants hustling diners out with nary an apology. What that manager did seemed like a page out of your book- the manager asked for the table back, and OFFERED A FREE DRINK! The entitlement mentality has gone off the cliff.

No one likes to feel rushed, I get that. But if you've paid your bill, you're in a hot restaurant, there's a line for seats and the manager invites you to a free drink -- a former waiter should understand.

A week ago we dined with friends at Makoto on MacArthur Boulevard. One of the best meals ever in DC. My wife asked for a glass of water and was told that water was only provided I'm designer bottles. Since the least expensive wine on the list was $80, we decided not to risk the water. Should restaurants not be obliged to provide regular tap water? And should one not be entitled to expect a selection of wines in the $40 range? We shall not return there because f the water and wine. A pity. Thanks, James Feather L

This is a first: A restaurant that doesn't offer the option of tap water? That's nuts.

 

A restaurant that wants to stay around, and develop its clientele, would also be wise to offer wines in a a range of prices. Bad Makoto! Bad, bad, bad.

After a few meals that made us question the purpose of Restaurant Week, I have to say that I was very impressed by Adour. I went in with low expectations, seeing that not one of the RW offerings was part of their regular menu. However, they went above and beyond with the extras. We received two amuse bouche (amuses bouche?), and the menu included a special selections of wines reasonably priced to accommodate the RW pricing and, we were told, in some places highly discounted. The two selections we tried off of the RW menu were both delicious, and the service did not miss a step. Altogether, it was a great experience, one that makes us actively want to revisit the restaurant rather than the "well, I guess I'd go back" that is often the feeling after a RW meal.

Now that's the way to get people back into your restaurant.

 

Three cheers for Adour! (Even if the restaurant might have lost some money on the promotion, it obviously made some folks excited enough to sing its praises in a public forum. Mission accomplished.)

Tom, Believe it or not, the vegetarian burger at Bourbon Steak is the best in town. It's made with quinoa and red beans, and it's wonderfully put together. You can get a salad on the side, or fries (which are not vegan as they're fried in duck fat).

Quinoa and red beans? I'm tossing the combination in my  mind. Not too starchy?

I think that Pearl Dive handled the table lingerers appropriately and with class. In fact, I am so impressed that I doubt I will ever vountarily surrender my table again until I have been offered a free drink. In this tight economy, I cannot afford not to.

Uh oh. What did I just start?

Non-veg places with GREAT veg food: Estadio, Zaytinya, Rasika, Masa 14 Veg-focused places that have good veg food: Cafe Green on 17th street, Great Sage in Columbia MD, Vegetable Garden in Rockville, and of course Sticky Fingers in Columbia Heights (two time Food Network cupcake champs!)

Lots of ideas there. Thanks.

Sunflower Restaurant in Falls Church, VA. I'm not a vegan or even a vegetarian, but I went there with someone who is and I enjoyed my meal very much.

But of course. I like that place, too.

Hi Tom, I was wondering if you could share your thoughts, practices, and experiences with restaurants comping well know critics and how they may affect reviews. I’m sure that you are personally recognized occasionally and offered free courses, wine, or extras; what is your policy on taking these benefits, understanding you have an expense account as well. I ask because over the last month I was talking to two GMs of well known 3 – 4 star restaurants and they expressed relief that the Washingtonian dining guide was out because they now wouldn’t have to entertain tables of their staff who expect gratis meals, free flowing wine, and other benefits (don’t demand or maybe even ask, but it is an unstated understanding). How might this affect the integrity of their ranking and reviews? What has your experience been?

For the record, I do not knowingly accept anything gratis. When an owner who recognized me at a well-regarded restaurant shaved truffles on an otherwise humble soup last week, I asked that I be charged for the garnish (which I did not ask for). A lot of times, especially when I'm abroad and recognized, restaurants want to pay for stuff. But I never let them.  There's no way I'd risk my credibility -- and when you lose that, it's very hard to earn back.

 

I have a hard time believing the grandfather of our city magazines accepts the freebies you suggest it does.  I've never heard that about that publication or any of its current reviewers, ever. 

 

As for some of the lesser magazines? It would help a reader to know if a meal or meals are being comped. When a writer is getting something for free, it's difficult to turn around and be critical.

 

This subject deserves more time than we have now. Another chat, perhaps?

You have finally seen the light!! Jaleo is definitely out and has been for some time.

I've never pulled any punches with Jaleo. All my meals at the tapas restaurant have been pretty swell up until last month.

Tom, RJ here. Hope you're well. I have been at Hopkins now for 7 days and way ready to head home. The doctors and caregivers here are world-class. The pulled me though the hardest parts of my surgery and motivated me to move when I was tired. However, like our school systems, the food that is being served is unpalatable. Through the dawn of time food is supposed to comfort and bring joy, nurture the ailing, bring energy within the body and soul. Well, this has been forgotten and needs to be looked at. As a patient if I could even drink real broths and real fruit my stay here would have been much better. Home soon. Take care. RJ

Ah, thank you so much for checking in with us from your recovery bed, Mr. Cooper! We wish you a speedy (and more delicious) return to good health. From all reports, Rogue 24 has been in great hands, you should be pleased to know.

Went there on Saturday, put our names in at 815p and did not get seated until 11p. They said it could be 2 hours so they underestimated a little bit. We didn't mind as we had no other plans and the Master Mind drinks at Quill certainly helped pass the time. As for LS, the meal was fantastic. Only the toast with shrimpy paste was so-so, everything else was amazing and the portions generous enough to have a few small containers to take home for lunch the next day. Wait staff was great as well so my only beef is the no-reservations thing. Can you shed some light on why restaurants do that? Makes it hard to plan an evening which undoubtedly turns a lot of people away. As I said this time I had no other plans so not an issue but that's not usually the case.

Glad you dug Little Serow as much as I did.  It's such a small, hot restaurant, it doesn't need to take reservations. Like you, I dislike that I can't book there, though, and hate that there's not even a number to call. 

Check out Compassion over Killing's list of DC vegan and veg-friendly restaurants at http://www.vegdc.com/! My favorites are Galaxy Hut in NoVa (mmm, pulled tofu bbq sandwich) and Sticky Rice in DC, but there are plenty of options.

We appreciate the resource. Thanks for sharing it.

Now that you've seen the light with Jaleo, maybe you'll finally come around like the rest of us, to the conclusion that the Inn at Little Washington is overpriced and not remotely special enough to make the trip worthwhile.

Now that will be a challenge, because I don't believe it to be true.

Probably the two best places we've found at Disney are Jiko in the Animal Kingdom Lodge for South African food and the California Grill on the top floor of the Contemporary. For the latter, the key is to go around the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom because the restaurant gives you a spectacular view. Also is quite easy to walk to that park if they are having late night hours that night.

I knew someone would pull through for us before the end of the hour. Thanks.

Tom, McLean has Harth as well as Evo Bistro to its credit. If you take a somewhat broader view of McLean to include the Tysons area (which is shared by McLean & Vienna but technically is not a town in its own right) you can include Nostos, Lebanese Taverna, Michael at the Ritz-Carlton, Cheff Geoff's, Panache (much better than the downtown version) and many more.

Fair point.

Tom - What's your take on Dangerously Delicious Pies?

Haven't tried 'em yet. But I can imagine the fun a food writer who didn't like the product would have with the name.

He even offered to buy them a drink. I think that's super generous and probably not necessary. It's a busy place and patrons are waiting!

Yup.

The manager was very much correct. Heck, he even offered a free drink if they moved, and that's real money for a restaurant. The poster should feel lucky they were offered one.

Indeed.

When someone says they want to spend no more than $40 per person, what makes that so hard for you to understand? Do you really think they want to add another $20 per person for wine, tax, and tip? NO. They gave you their limit. You do this a lot with your answers from posters who give you their cost limit. They aren't you, so they likely don't have unlimited restaurant budgets. I know you can't imagine a meal that "only" costs $40 total but some of your readers do fall in that category.

Hey, hey, hey, what's with the attitude? You'd be surprised at the important details posters sometimes leave out. I was just confirming. Geesh. I eat plenty of bargain meals, pal.

Just curious: Why would you be recognized abroad? Or overseas restaurants particularly aware of the Washington Post's food critic?

Good question. I've had restaurants in London, Vienna and elsewhere identify me by my tweets and Facebook posts, although I try not to share too much on either form of social media. It's getting less and less easy to eat under the radar -- anywhere, it seems.

 

Time's up, folks. Thanks for a lively hour. Remember to tune in again here Feb. 1 at 11 a.m. (and wish me good dining luck in Denver next week).

In This Chat
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. 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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