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

Feb 15, 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.

Tom, can you please settle a post-V-Day dispute? My boyfriend does not see the harm in making reservations at multiple restaurants for the same day and time, then deciding at the last minute which to take and cancelling the others. I say this is horribly rude, to both the restaurants and to other diners. Maybe he will listen to you as the voice of authority.

I side with you.

 

Making multiple reservations at different restaurants is pretty thoughtless, particularly if your boyfriend is cancelling reservations on the same day (or worse, an hour or so before he decides where he really wants to eat).

 

By waiting until the end, he's depriving diners who might have hoped to eat at a place of a table. He's also taking money away from restaurateurs, unless, of course, the businesses can find a replacement, which isn't always easy to do.

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for another hour of food chat.

 

There's much to discuss today: Have you heard that Michel Richard is opening not one, but three restaurants in Atlantic City this spring?  Or that Jose Andres is developing a potato chip that diners will have to listen to, and that he's bored with flat tables?

 

But first, tell me what you did last night, where you celebrated Valentine's Day.

What do you think is missing from the DC dining scene? And what new restaurant(s) are you excited about?

Missing from the scene: a serious deli, a serious Swedish restaurant, more regional Thai restaurants (a la Little Serow in Dupont Circle), better desserts, better bakeries, better Vietnamese restaurants (I've been eating in some truly mediocre ones lately) ... the list is a long one.

 

Places I'm looking forward to returning to, or taste-testing early on: Mintwood Place by Cedric Maupillier, Bandolero from Mike Isabella, Boqueria from New York and Daikaya, the ramen joint from the owners of Sushiko and New Heights, where former Cork Wine Bar chef Ron Tanaka has taken over the kitchen.

To follow up on last week's discussion, remember that you can't always tell if someone has a medical issue. Trust me, I feel bad asking servers to repeately refill my glass during a meal and I worry that they think I'm being difficult. In reality, though, I have a condition that makes it hard for me to swallow. Drinking a lot of water very quickly makes it easier. If I don't do that, I'm probably going to throw up my food (usually I can make it to the bathroom before that happens, but not always). This isn't an exaggeration. It's something I worry about constantly, and I think about it when I'm trying to decide if I should eat in front of anyone, anywhere, anytime. I like Europe. But instead of saying that people should engage in "moderation" like refined Europeans, maybe servers could just assume that everyone who drinks a lot of water is in the same situation as me.

Fair point. Thanks for enlightening us.

 

In your situation, maybe it would be best to ask for a pitcher or a bottle to be left on the table, so you could replenish your glass as needed?

Hi Tom, You always talk highly of Bibiana, so I recently went. Frankly, I don't get it. I would say it was average at best. We had the fried artichokes for appetizer (blah) and the sea bass for dinner. It was truly nothing special. What do you get there that is so phenomenal? Portion sizes were incredibly tiny, prices were high, the atmosphere is fine. It's hard to believe that Bibiana is a top Italian restaurant. When I compare it to Italian restaurants in NYC....well, I wouldn't even consider it to be anywhere close to restaurants in NYC (I"m thinking someplace like Elio's on the upper east side). Just my two cents...I felt like it was a waste of my time and money (a lot of money). We're trying City Zen this week. What should I order?

Did you try any of Bibiana's pastas? Chef Nicholas Stefanelli makes a terrific squid ink spaghetti with crab and chilies. And I can still taste his poached branzino, served on a crisp potato cake. Plus, I think the service at Bibiana is very good.

Tom, The boyfriend and I went out for dinner last night at one of our favorite quiet Italian places in Arlington where we eat about once every week or two. The bill came and when we got our credit card receipts back our totals only added up to 2/3 of our bill. They were busy and I had seen other credit cards being given back with ours and as a former server my first thought was that he had run our cards on the wrong bill and someone had paid ours. I told the server our mistake and they charged our cards again for the additional total. The boyfriend thinks they wre trying to comp us (and admittedly, English is not the first language of the staff), but my thought was if they were comping us as regulars we would be told so. Am I crazy?

I agree with you: regardless of what language they use, restaurants tend to tell diners when they're offering something "on the house." 

 

Your missive reminds me to remind you to always, always double-check your bill at meal's end.  Last Saturday night, for instance, a server forgot to charge my party of four for $90 worth of wine  (note to Post Accounting: I personally paid for the grape juice.)  An error on the server's side, for sure, and one that cost me money. But I believe in karma.

Where should I take my sister and her husband for lunch after we go to National Cathedral? I'd prefer something fairly close by. Thanks for your help!

My go to spot up there has long been Two Amys, best-known for its Neapolitan pizzas but best experienced through its Italian small plates, charcuterie and wine list. Be warned: The place is popular with families with young children and noisy at prime lunch and dinner hours.

Could you please ask local restaurants to maybe be a little smarter about the music they broadcast out load on the streets. I was walking wintnot h my niece and nephew through gallery place during the day on Friday and a nestaurant / bar which apparently has a license to broadcast music on the street. I do not know when I became such an old fuddy - duddy, but I was totally appalled by the graphic nature of the song playing out. I would not have thought twice if I were a patron inside, but it was the middle of the day in the heart of gallery place!

Yours is the first complaint I've received regarding music broadcast outside a restaurant. Consider your message blasted out, so to speak.

Hi Tom. Love the chats and appreciate all the advice. I'm hoping you (or the other chatters) can help me out. I have to be in Georgetown tomorrow morning for a meeting and my husband suggested we go in early to beat the traffic, and then grab breakfast while we're waiting. All I can think of that might be worthwhile is breakfast pastries at Baked & Wired, but maybe there's something else? Any suggestions?

Have you heard? Seasons restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel just reopened after a million dollar face-lift. Before it closed for repairs in December, it was considered one of the city's best places for a power breakfast.  Seasons has lots of choices on it's a.m. menu, everything from breakfast sliders to shrimp and grits.

 

For something less grand -- yogurt parfaits, croissants, simple egg dishes --  consider Kafe Leopold, tucked away in Cady's Alley behind M St. NW.

Hey Tom, I was wondering where you would recommend my husband and I go for a fabulous birthday dinner of Italian food. We are trying to keep it to $250 total, including drinks, tax, and tip. I have been looking at Fiola or Obelisk - any suggestions? Thanks - love the chat!

I enjoy both restaurants a lot. I guess it depends what kind of backdrop you want.

 

Obelisk in Dupont Circle is on the more intimate side, with simpler preparations; Fiola, close to Pennsylvania Ave. NW,  is more like a big Italian cocktail party that you were fortunate to have been able to crash.

Any recent notable dining experiences to share? Saw your tweet about the salmon response. And what was you or your guest's reply.....besides laughter!

The chatter is referencing a meal from earlier this week, where I asked a waiter what a vegan friend might eat from the menu. "Salmon," he replied.

 

My immediate response was "Salmon?!"

 

Needless to say, we had to grill the guy thoroughly thereafter, so my friend could avoid anything with a face and dairy products. (Not easy, I learned!)

I know I drink a lot of water at meals and I therefore ask for a pitcher or other large container of water. Almost every time the waiter/waitress denies my request. Based upon poor experiences in the past, my tip is based almost entirely upon how often I run out of water. If my glass is never empty, I leave 20%. Each time I run out of water the tip drops by 5%. I have left a $0.01 tip several times when my drink was never refilled.

What reason do the servers give for not giving you your own pitcher?

Tom, I know that, in the grand scheme of things, this is not an earth shattering issue but I'm wondering why restauranteurs spend so much time on the decor, the cuisine and so many other details but do not bother to have their menus proofread? I'm French born and raised (although I've lived in the U.S. for the last 25 years) and, have noticed French dishes not being spelled correctly in numerous restaurants serving them. Actually, it's not just French dishes. I can't tell you how many times I've seen Caesar salad mispelled...I'm sure it wouldn't be a big expense to hire a proofreader...actually, I'll do it for free as a public service. Thanks for letting me vent about a pet peeve. I feel better now...

You are preaching to the choir with your complaint. I see at least two typos a day on the job, I swear. Menu mistakes make the restaurant look sloppy. And if I had a dollar for every "au jus with gravy" I spotted out there, I could retire today (well, almost).

Hi Tom! Do you or the chatters have any Frankfurt, Germany suggestions?

Frankfurt, bitte?

How did he taste?

Verrrrrry funny. Well, you know what happens when you ask for well done, don't you?

I know you rave about Rasika, and my SO and I finally got reservations for an upcoming Saturday. What dishes do we have to try so our experience can mirror yours in exceeded expectations? We have no food allergies, are adventurous eaters but have not had a lot of Indian food in the past so we're not to familiar with the flavors. Also, where's a good place to grab a drink after dinner and meet up with some friends? Something lively with a decent beer/cocktail list would be great! Thanks so much for your chats!

The cocktails at Rasika are top-drawer, but if you want to continue your party after dinner someplace else, head to The Source, one of my favorite watering holes in the city.

 

As for what to try on Vikram Sunderam's always-interesting menu, two of his signatures are crisp baby spinach with yogurt and date chutney and marinated black cod. Honestly, though, you can pretty much point your finger anywhere on his menu and pluck a winner. Some of  my favorite dishes at Rasika are meatless, by the way.

Hello Tom! It's been years since I've gone to the Kennedy Center. Would love some great restaurant suggestions. We're very adventureous eaters (dare I say foodies?!) and we'll be taking the metro.

For something upscale, your best bet is the pre-theater menu offered at the French-themed Marcel's; for something more casual, I recommend the recently-reviewed District Commons off Washington Circle.

Tom - I'm looking to give a gift certificate to a great Boston restaurant as a wedding gift. Any thoughts on where to send the newlyweds?

I've got the perfect idea for you: Menton, from the chef behind the esteemed No. 9 Park, also in Boston.  I wrote about the former restaurant in a recent Postcard from Tom.

Tom, Last week's poster who predicted that the new Boqueria opening in DC will wipe José Andres's Jaleo off the map really misses the mark in my view. They are such very different places with different menus that I think both will survive. I know Jaleo much better, of course, being a resident of the DC area, but I've eaten at Boqueria's Soho branch and have enjoyed both restaurants a lot. Jaleo is more of a family restaurant serving a much wider variety of small plates than Boqueria. With its high stools and small tables, families will not likely be flocking to sample Boqueria's wonderful charcuterie and other dishes, which draws a much younger crowd, at least in NYC. DC has room for both and both will continue to do well.

Yep, the city has plenty of room for two great tapas establishments. And let's not forget: Jaleo is closing soon for a few weeks of renovation after which we'll have a hipper, prettier place to graze on Jose Andres's small plates.

Tom, are you aware of bargains available for retirees like us who don't mind eating an early dinner (or a very late lunch)?

I see fewer early bird lists and more pre-theater menus, which you and your friends should take advantage of whether or not you plan to see "Jersey Boys." 

 

Some of my favorite deals are at 701 in Penn Quarter, Tavira in Chevy Chase, Plume in the Jefferson Hotel and Ris in the West End. 

 

Chatters, feel free to weigh in with your bargain finds

They say it is restaurant policy to not have a caraff or pitcher on the table.

Okay. But wouldn't open bottles of designer water be a liability then, too?

Unless you warn a waiter, this is totally unacceptable. And even then. Waiters are not slaves. They are managing multiple tables, and a water glass might run dry, especially if you are a big water drinker. Imagine if you boss comes in after a days work and tells you he or she did not appreciate some arbitrary aspect of your performance and refused to pay you. You have done the same thing. Only the waiter can not sue. So uncool.

I'm not a fan of the penny/dime/dollar tip, either, no matter how poor the service is.

We went to Liberty Tavern last night, and it was just as wonderful as it was last year. No hype over Valentine's day other than a few specials. We had a delicious charred beet and arugula salad, and some fantastic fish and our wonderful (attentive, but non-intrusive!) server recommended a great bottle of reasonably priced wine to go with the meal.

So glad to hear that about Liberty Tavern, a great neighborhood destination that I really need to try anew.  Not every V-Day celebrant wants to eat more than a few courses or shell out big bucks for a fancier-than-usual dinner.

 

My Significant Other was away last night, so I ended up assembling dinner for myself from not very much in the refrigerator. I took some rice from an order of  (bad) Chinese take-out, found an egg (one of two) and the remains of a jar of kimchi based on a David Chang recipe. Throw it all together and I had instant bibimbap (kinda sorta). Washed it back with a syrah, because that was all I found in our wine locker.  It was kind of nice not to eat out for once.

Before casting stones at restaurants, it might be good to look inward at the Post, which no longer seems to have either proofreaders or copy editors, as well as having a lot of verbose sloppy writers. Touche!

Ouch! (Fair is fair.)

Tom you said the waiter forgot to charge my party of four for $90 worth of wine and the error cost you money - how?

What I meant to say is, I paid the amount I should have in the first place. Had I not flagged the error, I would have left with $90 more -- not that I would ever do that, I hope you know!

Becoming Hax column here: Yes your boyfriend is rude and this gives you a huge insight into his personality and how he treats people. Do you want to stay with some one this thoughtless of other people? Is he rude to the waiters once you get to dinner?

Over decades of dining out with people, I've learned you can tell a lot about people from their willingness to share (or explore)  food. Someone who isn't a sharer -- well, when I'm paying! -- is probably not going to be invited out again.

Any suggestions? Thanks!

Sun tan lotion and ... help me out here, gang.

Tom: Went to America Eats for lunch today for the first time after hearing relatively mixed reviews from friends. Am I the only one that thinks the place is insanely expensive for what it is. Over $20 for a lobster roll that has probably half the amount of lobster you'd get at Red Hook (which would also be cheaper). For lunch, even though the menu online lists several sandwiches, the actual menu at the restaurant has none. You're basically stuck with entrees, many of which are in excess of $30, that the waitress actually tells you would only be suitable for a "light lunch" if you don't order other courses. So, not that I have a specific complaint about the quality of the food, its just a place I won't visit again. Seems way over the top in price for what you get; if I want to spend that kind of money I'd much rather be at the Oval Room or somewhere like that.

Thanks for the field report from the longest-running pop-up I know of.

There's also Le Pain Quotidien or Paul for a casual breakfast.

Yep. But I always feel like I eat too much bread there.

Don't the Clydes Restaurants provide pitchers of filtered water on the tables?

We didn't go out for dinner last night -- because we decided to forgo the crowds and went out on Monday instead! (No place of note, really -- a perfectly pleasant little hole in the wall that we had been meaning to try. We were almost the only ones there.)

Ah, good strategy: beat the crowds, spend less.

Last summer during a 6 hour layover we sprinted through customs, hopped on the train and had dinner in the city. Paulaner am Dom is a beer garden that specializes in serving Paulaner beer and had great food. It's right next to the Dom Cathedral (you could throw your beer stein and hit it). My wurst was fantastic and my boyfriend got a mango pizza (which I teased him about) but it was really delicious.

Mango pizza in Germany?  Wouldn't be my first choice, but I like the idea of a wurst and a cathedral backdrop outside the airport. Good for you.

And makes the Post look inaccurate. Clearly no one actually reads the words before they go to press. There are more and more typos and missing words every day. And now another round of buyouts? Why do I still pay for a subscription?

Because you still get a lot of useful information and carefully crafted, carefully edited prose and images for a buck an issue. That's why. 

So do you think the White House reads your chats for recommendations?

Dunno.  But I was told by her press secretary that First Lady Laura Bush read my reviews with the caveat they had to be in a Washington Zip Code.

What should be response on behalf of a restaurant when a server spills a glass of water on you? Over the weekend, I was dining at Rustico Ballston when our server spilled a full glass of water on our table and on my wife. We didn't give the server a hard time about it because accidents happen. But we got kind a haphazard, unhurried clean up, and then in the middle of it our food was delivered onto our still soaked table. I'm not really sure what I expected to happen, but I wasn't really satisfied with what did (or didn't happen). What should I expect?

I would expect a profuse apology, a quick mop up and a question from the manager: Anything we can do to make this a little more comfortabler? A glass of wine, perhaps?

The Floridian for a wonderful, divey breakfast, Mario's Catalina for high-end (and high-priced) Cuban, Market 17 for farm-to-table American fare, and Tundra if you're more interested in a chef for his background as an ice sculptor. (okay, I haven't actually eaten at that last one; just admired the ice sculptures melting away along Las Olas. But the other suggestions are serious!)

Reader to the rescue! Thanks.

Just call to cancel your print subscription and they'll offer it to you practically free. Not making this up. It happened to me. The paper isn't even a shadow of what it was when I moved here 35 years ago. And it keeps going down. Especially the online version which has an incredible amount of errors every day.

I'm sorry you feel that way, but I have to say, I've worked for four newspapers in four different markets, and this newsroom is far and away the most impressive outfit, filled with smart people who really care about what they do, every day. I also happen to think I'm writing for one of the smartest audiences anywhere in the country.

I grew up eating home-cooked Indian food, and I would say the vegetarian appetizers on their menu are among the best things there. Avoid the common Indian restaurant dishes like butter chicken -- not that they are bad, but the other things are so much better.

Good advice.  (Like you, I'm partial to the vegetarian preparations).

My daughter and I go there every summer. You will not be disappointed with Coconuts. Sits right on the water, you can dock your boat and walk right in. They have the freshest most delish seafood, lobster rolls, crab claws. They also offer red meat and poultry and very nice drinks.

Okay, we have at least two meals covered for our Florida-bound diner.

You are right about your audience. And in my educated opinion, you are clearly one of their brightest and best writers. I look forward to your columns, blogs, updates, and chats!

Bless you ... mom?

A decent Polish restaurant!!!!!

Yes!  There's a great model in Chicago. Name escapes me, but I love that hearty style of eating.

My husband and I chose RIs for Valentine's Day dinner. Our server was great and very attentitve and sympathetic. We were seated promptly and our food was comped. That was the good. The bad was everything else. It had been 45 min when I looked at my watch and we still had not been served our appetizers. The lobster bisque was mostly bisque. Then the entrees came and the ribeye was overcooked. The lamb shank was tender as promised and the ravioli appetizer was very flavorful and interesting. That is another good. But as parents to a 16 month old and normal ordinary people we cherish our time and our money. It definitely helped that the meal (other than the wine was comped) but we didn't go out to be comped. So it was a lose lose for everyone.

Drat. Sorry to hear that.

Neighborhood Italian places!! Casual, walk-in, inexpensive and homey. Any suggestions in Arlington?

Yes! Would Al Tiramisu fit the definition of "casual," given its Dupont Circle location? I always like eating there. So charming. And the pastas and fresh fish are divine.

Hi, I'm trying to organize a brunch for a group of friends. Most of the guests do not eat pork. I am struggling to come up with some delicious options. Do you or your readers have any suggestions?

What porky menus are you looking at? I haven't noticed any bounty of bacon on brunch lists. 

 

 

Can I please send a shout out to Charlie Palmer for my awesome birthday dinner. The service was so attentive, our table in the front was great, but the food was amazing! My love had the carpaccio/tartar app that was just devine, and my cheese app was great. Our steaks were perfect. And, despite the fact that they were packed, they were patient and we never felt rushed. Also, the bartender knows how to pour a martini like no ones business.

Take a bow, Charlie Palmer Steak.

Tom, I had dinner at Central for the first time recently. I really enjoyed the food, although I was surprised to find the decor a bit cheesy, like a '90s chain hotel restaurant, and it was really bright inside. Coincidentally, Frank Bruni tweeted about the lighting recently too. Have you been there recently?

I was there just before my fall guide came out.  My dinner  was good, but not Cedric Maupiller good.

Hubby's out of town. Where in Arlington or Alexandria should I go for a solo dinner tonight? Bonus points if it's got a nice bar where I can be my solo self comfortably.

I dig the bars at Restaurant Eve and its sister, Majestic, both in Alexandria. But try to go early; they're both popular watering holes. 

Someone tell Masala Art that their website has expired! It doesn't work anymore!

Catch that, Masala Art?

Hi Tom! First, let me say that my favorite part of every Wednesday is when I remember that your chat is happening. Truly a highlight! Second, after many years of hard work both in school and post-graduation, my husband and I have finally paid off our law and graduate school loans. We'd like to treat ourselves to a nice dinner to celebrate. We live in Old Town, but work in DC, so anywhere in the District to Old Town would be preferred. We're looking to spend no more than $200/person including tax, tip, and alcohol. Any suggestions for a place where we can celebrate being free of the student loan shackles? Thanks so much for your help!

How about following the lead of POTUS and FLOTUS and booking a (window) table at the always-delicious Vermilion in Old Town?  Not only will you dine memorably, you'll leave with much of your budget intact.

 

Thanks for the kind words, former student, and thank you, fellow chatters, for a lively 60 minutes. My lunch alarm is ringing. See you here again 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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