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

Feb 01, 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.

Hi Tom, I'd like your thoughts on an experience we had at Proof last week. My husband and I met another couple there for dinner. My husband ordered a beer from the beer list, not looking closely at the price since, well, it was beer. Even nice beers don't usually cost more than $15-20, if that, and this one was in the middle of the beer list among average-priced beers. Anyway, he placed his order with the waiter and, upon hearing the funny name of the beer, one of our friends spoke up and said, "that sounds good, I'll have that, too." The waiter took the order, brought us the beer, and that was that. UNTIL we got the bill and saw that the beers were over $100 each. I was outraged; I feel that the waiter had an ethical obligation to mention the price since it is so far outside the normal range, and especially to our friend who spoke up after my husband placed his order. I know that technically it is our fault since the beer is listed on the menu, but I also feel that a decent waiter should have said something like, "we're happy to bring that to you, but just wanted to make sure you are aware of the price so it doesn't catch you off-guard later." To me, it's no different than serving someone a special that is much more expensive than the regular menu. Yes, technically, it's the diner's responsibility for what he orders, but not mentioning it seemed like a sin of omission to me. What do you think? It really soured me on Proof and I will not be back.

 

Here's a situation where I wish I knew the identity of the poster, so I could ask her a few questions. If she was so upset, for instance, why didn't she engage a manager?

 

Proof's general manager, Michael James, confirms that the restaurant recently sold two remaining bottles of $100 beer --  Nuclear Penguin, an ale from Scotland -- to a party of four. Be he recalls that the waiter addressed the cost at the time the suds were ordered and that the party "left very happy" (although the younger male at the table asked for the two beers to be put on a separate check, so his drinking companion couldn't see the price).

 

I frequently scold restaurants for not flagging the price, in print or verbally,  of specials or dishes that are significantly higher than the norm. In this case, however, the price was declared on the menu and the general manager believes the server somehow indicated its specialness.

 

Even so, the group has my sympathy. No one wants to feel "taken" when they're out to eat with friends.

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for another hour of food chat. Bring on your questions and comments.

 

Tom, we don't venture to Bethesda for dinner, but are dining with friends who live in Chevy Chase this Friday. I got reservations at Food and Wine Co for Friday night and am hoping they are participating in RW! Is this a good choice or would you steer us elswhere? We are not picky and like to try new things; Food and Wine Co got great reviews. We missed DC RW earlier this month, so this will be our winter treat! Thanks! -a loyal fan

Food, Wine & Co. is a fine choice. I like the handsome dining room, done up in pleasing greens and browns, as well as chef Michael Harr's cooking, designed here to appeal to the masses but better than that sounds.  Go for the raw oysters, rib-eye steak with hand-cut fries, red curry mussels and rock shrimp pasta. A drink at the bar, meanwhile, lets you check out the $550 leather stools.

After making reservations via Open Table, I've found that most restaurants will call me the day before to "reconfirm" the reservations. If the restaurants leave a voicemail, they require diners to call them back or, I presume, lose their reservations. I understand that restaurants want to decrease no-shows, but I find the practice of reconfirming via another telephone call to be annoying and an inconvenience. Yes, it only takes 2 minutes to make the call, but it's still annoying. One of the reasons I use Open Table is it's convenience. Maybe restaurants feel online reservations are "too convenient" and too easy to disregard. If I need to cancel, I try my best and usually notify the restaurant as soon as possible. What is your opinion on the practice of requiring reconfirmation phone calls by restaurants?

I don't think there would be as many "We're calling to reconfirm" calls from restaurants if customers did a better job of honoring their reservations. That said, I, too, find those prompts annoying: one more thing to add to an already epic To Do list!

 

I generally return such calls, mostly because I'd REALLY be upset if a restaurant cancelled my reservation if I failed to phone back. But even in cases where I haven't had the opportunity to reconfirm, no restaurant has ever crossed my name off the schedule.

 

Restaurateurs, care to weigh in on the subject? 

Tom, I'd like to thank the chatter who recommended Scott Joseph's Orlando dining website prior to my trip there last month. While his reviews aren't as detailed as yours, they're concise and to the point, and I found them very useful. And there's a lot of them! He even reviews restaurants in the parks. We found Seasons 52 lived up to the hype, Jiko was excellent, and not just "for a Disney place"; and we had a decent meal at Cedars of Lebanon. Yes, the Three Broomsticks was edilble, and worth it for the surroundings. We also had the "signature dish of Central Florida", grouper in pecan sauce, at Chatham's Place. It was very good, but they treated us so badly that I'd never go back. Thanks again for the chats....and the chatters.

Thank *you* for the feedback.

 

The Florida critic's site can be found at www.scottjosephorlando.com

 

 

Here's a challenge...I'm heading to Bismarck, ND for work in two weeks. I'll be responsible for organizing one group dinner. Any recommendations?

I'm stumped. Does anyone here know the Bismark restaurant scene?

Hey Tom, Pet peeve from a bbq aficionado, aka, massive snob. If the meat from a rack of ribs "falls off the bone at the touch of your teeth", then it's overcooked. The meat should have a good firmness and bite to it. Heath and Brett are regulars on the competitive bbq circuit I believe...they probably cringed a bit at that line in your review.

Fair point there.  I simply wanted to let readers know the ribs were tender. They did not *taste* overcooked -- unlike the pulled pork, the chicken and even the beef sausage I sampled at Pork Barrel BBQ, the subject of today's First Bite column..

Paula Deen recenlty being in the news makes me wonder how are we supposed to know if a restaurant dish hasn't been larded up with extra butter, cream, peanut oil, sugar, etc.? I know enough to avoid the Olive Garden, but even haute restaurants can use a heavy hand with the fats. What do you suggest we do to avoid this? Thanks!

Short answer: Ask questions.

 

As in, "How is the meat cooked?" and " Is there cream in the soup?" and "Can the chef omit salt?" and "Which dessert has the least amount of sugar?"  Information is power.

Read the transcript of the chat from 2 weeks ago and figured I would submit some recommendations for the person seeking dining help at Disney World (hope it's not too late for them). Narcoossee's at the Grand Floridian hotel is a nice seafood restaurant with a great view (if you book a late reservation, you can see the fireworks from the Magic Kingdom since the restaurant is right across the lake). Ohana at the Polynesian resort is another highlight. For in-park dining, most of the places in the World Showcase at Epcot are good because they are different from typical amusement park fair. The steakhouse in Canada and the restaurants in France are both very good, but I'd avoid the Japanese hibachi restaurant (not bad, but not any different from a standard hibachi place you could go to anytime). I also highly recommend stopping in the pastry shop in France to get a napoleon.

Between this and the earlier post, I think we have a week's worth of ideas for the Disney World-bound out there. Thanks.

Tom, Headed to Barcelona for our 1 year anniversary. Have you ever been there? If not can we open it up to the chatters? Thanks.

It's been awhile since I've eaten in Spain, but two places I always like to revisit are Pinotxo, the open-air tapas bar in the famous Boqueria food market, and Rias de Galicia, the grand old seafood restaurant where I tasted my first goose barnacles and recall splurging on head-on shrimp, pristine oysters and garlicky baby eels.

 

Anyone been to Barcelona within the past year or so? Feel free to share your suggestions.

I am headed to these two fabulous locations next week. any suggestions from you or the chatters of great places to dine? We will be in Budapest for valentines day. We will be at the Imperial in Vienna and the 4 seasons in Budapest if location helps. Recommendations would be GREATLY appreciated.

I can help with Vienna, since I was there over Christmas. 

 

If price is no consideration, check out the elegant Steirereck, a two-Michelin celebration in the middle of a city park that does some pretty amazing contemporary food, including salmon "cooked" in beeswax. For something more casual, but really impressive, Vestibule near the court house is great for traditional Viennese cooking.  When the hostess and co-owner heard I was from Washington, DC, she said, "Oh, we have a friend there! Do you know Sam Kass?"

I'm generally not a fan of these calls because they always seem to come while I'm at work. I suppose I understand, because if they called after work, people would complain that the restaurant was interrupting their dinner (usually for a Friday night reservation I get a call Thursday afternoon. I do find that some restaurants that I've been to several times still call to confirm the reservation. I wish some sort of system was in place that could show that I've booked reservations on Open Table before and never missed one.

Sort of like frequent flyer proof to avoid the security lines at airports? 

I am a server, and this situation can be a bit sticky at times. If you ask a guest if they are sure, or tell them the price in front of other guests, you run the risk of them being embarrased that you assume they may not want to pay that kind of money. One thing I have learned is that usually when money is an issue for a guest usually the question of price is asked before the order is made. I have had to verbally sell white and black truffle menus and unless the guests asks, it is considered impolite to then question whether they REALLY want it after price is mentioned. I believe you said it was listed on the menu (maybe I am incorrect), which in this case the choice was regrettably yours I am afraid. Some people don't have a problem spending this kind of money, and who is the server to make that call.

Thanks for sharing the industry view.

 

I've seen sommeliers sometimes point to a wine on a list, a subtle way to reconfirm a diner's intentions. It's much smoother than restating the price in front of a group.

His, his and the truth. But seriously, the first post reminds us that something can be experienced and perceived in very different ways, depending on the person and their point of view.

Trust me, I know. I'd estimate that two out of three questions I get for my Ask Tom column don't pan out, because the recollections of the diner and the restaurant are at odds.

Is BBQ becoming the next cupcakes?

It sure tastes that way, doesn't it? I miss Standard in Logan Circle. Maybe this warm weather will encourage an earlier-than-spring re-opening?

Recently, someone asked about restaurants with private rooms. Mykonos Grill in Rockville has a private room for about 30-40 people, with its own restroom. They also have menus for groups and very good service (my personal experience.)

A private dining room with its own loo! Dig it.

Tom: My wife and I stopped in Bismarck about a year ago on a cross-country drive; while there, we had a very nice dinner at the Pirogue Grille (http://www.piroguegrille.com). Perhaps helpful for the chatter asking for recommendations.

I *knew* one of you would pull through for us. Thanks.

I am looking for a casual place for lunch in Old Town Alexandria. Any suggestions?

How casual? Among my go-to spots are Vaso's Kitchen for homey Greek and the new Virtue Feed & Grain near the waterfront.

I was just in Barcelona in July. We didn't have one bad meal while were there. In Barcelona, we loved Pla de la Garsa (Assaondors 13) for traditional Catalan and a wonderful cheese plate, Restaurant Cal Pep (Plaza de les Olles, 8) for refined Catalan pinxtos (tapas), and if you cannot get a spot at the bar at Cal Pep, walk across the plaza to Celler de la Ribera (Plaza de les Olles, 6) for very good Spanish tapas.

Excellent recommendations. Gracias.

The more I read this chat I am gald I do not run a restaurant. If the the waiter had reminded the first poster of the price of the beer would the poster have written in how offended they were that the restaurant thought they could not afford the beer? Between persnicky diners and chatters that bite your head-off people have become too full of themselves. Oh, and how dare you review a restaurant from Del Ray, VA this past week! I live in XYZ and think every review should personally speak to me and my tastes! (sarcasm).

Restaurateurs, reviewers -- we can't win sometimes.

 

Thanks for the laugh.

Indique Heights in Chevy Chase has some very nice private rooms. To our surprise they also do non Indian dishes for parties, if you request them. Underground parking in Chevy Chase for $ 3 - is unbeatable.

For real? Like, if you don't want samosas the kitchen is happy to do mozzarella sticks?

I understand why restaurants do this, but the calls are often pretty close to the reservation time. Frankly, I am often away from the phone due to work (even my cell phone,) so don't get the message until I am leaving for the restaurant. I always worry they will have given away my reservation, though that hasn't happened yet. I prefer the practice of requiring those making a reservation to leave a small credit card deposit, which they forfeit if they don't show or cancel by 4 pm the day of the reservation...though I may be in the minority here.

Trust me, you are in the minority. (And with the publication of this post, I anticipate a flood of "No way!" from readers -- even though I kind of like the idea myself.)

Hi Tom. I want to thank two of my former managers for offering to be my references in my quest to find a new job. I was thinking of giving each of them a $125 restaurant gift certificate but I need restaurant recommendations in each of their neighborhoods (Alexandria & Bethesda). I'm thinking nothing too adventurous in terms of cuisine. Thanks

Your former bosses will continue to sing your praises after they've received your invitations to dine at Majestic or Vermilion in Old Town and Newton's or Praline in Bethesda.

Muzeum. Excellent food, service and setting. ~Pats Fan

That's a start for Budapest.

For the chatter headed to Vienna and Budapest: I was in Vienna in the Fall and had a great meal at Gasthaus Poschl. Very small and amazing traditional cooking. Figlmuller is a little touristy, but the schnitzel is fantastic. It has been a few years since I've been to Budapest, but I still dream of a meal I had at Fatal. Their traditional Hungarian gulash was delicious.

Not sure I'd feel comfortable eating in a restaurant with the name Fatal, but ...

As a former server, I wanted to chime in in support of the earlier comment. It's a d*&*#d if you do and d@#%$d if you don't. I've done both. Not informed - got reamed out (my defense - I'd only waited tables a grand total of a week) and informed and offended someone. Of course there's the always fun -- patron orders really expensive x to impress girl, mysteriously runs out of money for tip. Sigh. I'm so glad I sit in an office eight hours a day now.

I hear you.  Reading minds is not an easy job.

I wish Open Table had a "confirm" button you could click when you got your reminder e-mail so you could avoid the call from the restaurant. (like my dentist does)

Great idea. But I can already hear someone shouting you down: "No! No more emails than I already get!"

I've heard the burgers and fried chicken at Central downtown are both really good. Would it be ridiculous for a couple to go there and split those two things for dinner? I know that's not very haute cuisine, but it sounds really good!

Those burgers and chicken wouldn't be on the menu if they weren't selling at Central Michel Richard, the comparatively casual spinoff of Citronelle in G'town.  Eat as you wish, dear chatter.

I was thrilled to hear that they're opening another Rasika right around the corner from my office. Do you know when it's opening? I don't want to go anywhere near their website, which is as painfully bad as their food is good.

A chat or so ago, Ashok Bajaj said Rasika West End would likely launch the end of next month. 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.

I am not kidding - they do some serious french classical dishes, which surprised our European clients.

Thanks for following up. Interesting.

Is their actually any decent indian takeaway in this city? I came from Ireland 3 years ago and have yet to find a satisfactory restaurant.

Have you tried Masala Art in Tenleytown? 

If the price of the beer was printed on the menu, the fault was absolutely the customer's! Sheesh. What is a server supposed to say, "Wow, you know that beer is $100, right?"

I know, I know. Wish the original poster was here to explain.

Tom - though I love Vaso's, as a lifelong Alexandrian, I have to point out that it is not really in "Old Town" as most folks who are not from here would define it. If the chatter is looking for a lunch place amidst all the shops on King St., there is the new Pizzeria Paradisio on the 100 block of King St., along with the old stand-bys, Union St. Public House, Warehouse, etc. A little farther up is Fontaine Cafe creperie on the 100 block of S. Royal (which my husband might characterize as a "chick" place) and farther yet is South Austin Grill and Red Rockets Pizza. Even more casual is Bittersweet Cafe at King and Alfred Sts. where everyone who works in Old Town eats at least twice a week. Great sandwiches, salads, soups and a hot entree bar. On the south side of Old Town but in an area of shops (Williams-Sonoma, etc) is my favorite, Faccia Luna and Southside 815.

As soon as I hit "publish," I remembered "Old Town."

 

Thanks for offering a few more ideas.

Hi Tom, my wife and I are getting a hotel room downtown for the 18th and 19th to celebrate our 10th anniversary. The little ones are definitely staying home. We're going to Kaz for old times sake on Friday night, CityZen on Saturday night and haven't made plans for any other meals. Can you suggest a lunch place for Saturday or a brunch place for Sunday? Thanks!

Congrats. And what a nice line-up.

 

Lunch on Saturday: Palena Cafe in Cleveland Park

 

Brunch on Sunday: Zaytinya in Penn Quarter.

Tom, is there a B&B, restaurant, or winery in the area that serves up great food? I'm starting to plan for Valentine's Day....

Ah, a softball question. But ... you're just *now* thinking about Feb. 14?  Better get in on the phone, pronto.

 

My first choice for a day trip to Virginia would be the delightful Ashby Inn in Paris, Va. Its chef, Tarver King, is doing some delicious and inventive food. If Maryland is more your style, check out the Bartlett Pear Inn in Easton, co-owned by a lovely and attentive young couple (he's the chef).

We ate at Borkonyha ("Wine Kitchen") last year and loved it.

Another suggestion for Budapest.

Actually there is a history tab which can be used by restaurants to look up a diners reservation history. It recalls the number of reservations, the dates, number of people in the party, and whether the guest was a no show or cancelled.

Thanks for the inside scoop.

I'm curious if Proof lists the ABV for beers on its menu...Tactical Nuclear Penguin from BrewDog clocks in at 30+% ABV...It's only an 11.2 ounce bottle, but that's the equivalent of about 6 "standard" beers. As a restaurant industry vet, the first thing I wondered was if the server let the table know what they were getting into. That beer is meant to be shared, or sipped like a fine spirit. When Churchkey had their allotment of it, I think they sold it as 2 ounce tastings. Perhaps the server told the table the price, but maybe the beer made them forget by the time they were done!

So glad you wrote in. Yep, that beer goes down like malted whiskey (says the GM from Proof).

My wife and I were out for a date last week, but couldn't get a reasonable time for a table at a particular restaurant in DC. As we live in Alexandria, I vaguely remembered your recommended the Laotian menu at a place near 7 Corners. Bangkok Golden was terrific! The mango salad had a proper kick to it and we thoroughly enjoyed the Larb (mild chicken for her, Thai hot duck for me). We finished with a night cap over at the nearby Dogfish Head brewery. Thank you so much for ferreting out such gems in our area. Good value can be had from $ to $$$$.

Indeed it can. Glad to hear you had a good date at Bangkok Golden.

Hi Tom, Love your chat session. When is your next dining guide likely to be published?

My spring guide -- updates on previously reviewed restaurants -- comes out May 20.  Which places would you like me to at least consider?

Heritgage India in Glover Park, and they delivery

Good to know. I haven't been to Heritage India in a few years.

 

Time's up, gang. Please join me next Wednesday -- same time, same station --  for another round.

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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