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

Mar 07, 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 enjoy a great new restaurant as much as anyone, but, what is your take on his announcement of two new planned restaurants? Graffito is just a baby, and Bandolero isn't even open yet. I can't imagine restaurants like these are just set-and-forget. I'd hate to see this guy crash and burn...

 Did everyone hear the news yesterday? Mike Isabella is opening *two* new restaurants -- one Greek, the other Italian -- on 14th & W streets in Washington next year.

 

I think Isabella is a chef with serious chops (some of the best food I ever ate at Zaytinya came out of his kitchen) and a man with a ton of ambition who now has the clout, thanks to Top Chef, to see through a number of projects.

 

Like his former boss, Jose Andres, he is savvy about recruiting talent from within his ranks or hiring people he's worked with before to help him out. Restaurants, as anyone who has done them well knows, are team efforts.

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for another hour of food talk.  Let's begin.

Dear Tom -- I am a cancer patient soon to finish 8 rounds of chemo. I have been blessed with friends from my own Capitol Hill neighborhood, to Olney, Silver Spring, Vienna, McLean and Arlington, who have fed me during this difficult time. I would love to repay the favor by gathering all of these people for a nice meal. Do you have any recommendations for a restaurant that is centrally located for this diverse group (so probably DC), open for Saturday or Sunday lunch, preferably has a private room that can accommodate 20-30 people so we can socialize and celebrate without bothering other diners, and won't break my depleted bank. For me that means no more than $30 a head (which is why I imagine lunch rather than dinner). All cuisines are fine with me. I realize this is a tall order, but I am confident you'll make that perfect suggestion. Thank you!

You sound wonderful; small wonder so many people have helped you through your difficult time.

 

My immediate thought is Hill Country Barbecue, a sprawling restaurant with several semi-private alcove areas that can entertain a group about your size.  It's in Penn Quarter, close to several Metro stops and is always great fun, if noisy at prime hours.

Hi Tom, My husband and I were so happy when Tackle Box opened near our apt in Cleveland Park. We went there last night looking forward to the noise and energy we usually associate with it but they've completely changed. Now it's seated service with a greatly reduced menu. The restaurant was dark- and not in a romantic way-, there was bad 90's music playing and the whole vibe was just sad. I though they had a great thing going. What happened?

I put the question to Tackle Box owner Jonathan Umbel, who sent me a response via email:

"We are sorry that we missed it that evening regarding ambiance!  Lights and music can make or break any dining experience. All guest feedback is greatly appreciated and ...  we will  clip the 90’s music set list. We usually have the laidback island reggae vibe in the background, I will make sure, we get it back!  

 Best, Jonathan Umbel

 

No fair last week Tom! Some of us can't share others' food (vegetarian in my case) and shouldn't be judged for not sharing our own. I do share with my sister, also a veg, when we go out together. But I will guard my Tofu zealously against a meat-eater's probing fork if I am still hungry.

I hear you. But your chances of getting invited to dine out with a restaurant critic are slim if you don't give up a bite or two. I'm just sayin'!

Dear Tom, I know we hit this topic a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating. I made a restaurant reservation for Monday night. On Sunday night I got a call to confirm. On Monday, not only did I get an email reminding me of my reservation, but a text message from the restaurant. ENOUGH is ENOUGH already! Thanks for letting me vent.

Vent away.

 

Three reconfirmation notices, eh? That's excessive. Can you identify the restaurant? I'd love to learn why it feels it needs to call, email *and* text its reservation-holders.

Hey Tom, Tim from Ardeo here, I know how much you like the Pie and Wine deal we do, and I just wanted to let you know that we are going to start offering on Friday and Saturday nights from 10:30 to 11:30. I still don't think anything beats $15 for a pizza and a glass of wine, but that's just me. Cheers, Tim

Thanks for sharing the news, Tim.

 

Night owls, that should be your cue to belly up to the bar for pizza and vino at Ardeo + Bardeo.

Hi! All the daffodils bursting early in my yard have me craving shad roe. Is it showing up early on menus? And which restaurants do you recommend for this delicacy? Love reading your reviews!

Shad were running early this year (the season for the delicacy usually *starts* around now). One of the best treatments I've had thus far was at the new Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan. The fish and its roe were topped with a ribbon of lardo that added an unexpected luxuriousness to the plate.

 

Chatters, feel free to chime in with additional recommendations.

Hi Tom, I love your writing! My husband returns from a 12-month military deployment this weekend, and I want to take him out to dinner at a very romantic, quiet restaurant where we can catch up and revel in each other's company after so many months apart. Preferably a place in Penn Quarter, downtown, Atlas District, Barracks Row, or the Hill. Type of cuisine/price is not as important as romantic atmosphere. What do you suggest? Thank you!

Thanks for the kind words.

 

 I love the intimate window nooks (and the food, of course) at the Oval Room downtown;  the comfy booths at the pan-Asian Source next to the Newseum;  the corner banquette at the Atlas Room on H St. NE; and the sweeping beauty of J & G Steakhouse in the W Hotel near the Mall.

 

Does that help narrow the field? Here's wishing you a four-star reunion (clink!).

Hi Tom. I dined recently at a casual family restaurant that was very busy and full of customers. I saw a woman take her baby out of a high chair and lay it down on the seat of her booth. The woman then stood over the baby and changed its diaper. I had an unobstructed view of the proceedings. I was stunned, but did nothing. Just wondering -- should I have done something (besides get some trauma counseling)? Thanks.

So I guess there wasn't a changing station in the restroom?! Couldn't she have stepped outside and wrapped this up, literally, in the privacy of a car?

 

I have no problem with breast-feeding in public, but I don't think dinner with a side of poo (can't believe I just typed that) is something a stranger should have to witness.

 

Thoughts from the audience?

Finally got to Rasika this past Saturday and it was a meal to remember! One thing I really appreciated was that they let my SO order the tasting menu but I did not have to order it. I ordered my own app, entree, and side and we were able to share a lot of the menu this way. High praise for the crispy spinach, the eggplant appetizer, and the side vegetable order of cauliflower and peas was scrape-the-bowl-clean good! We had a lot of fun, though it's worth noting the restaurant is very loud. Loved dipping the naan in the butter chicken that came with the tasting menu entree, yummm!

Stop, you are making us hungry!

 

Glad to hear you enjoyed Rasika, the area's best Indian restaurant, hands down (at least until Rasika West End opens at 1177 22nd St. NW , right?)

 

At Restaurant Eve recently, I was similarly pleased to see that not every diner has to commit to the same style of eating (the same number of courses). I wish more restaurants offered such, although I know it can mess with pacing and execution.

Hi Tom, I'm reading "Cutting for Stone" and it's making me want to try Ethiopian food. Where do you recommend a total novice to go? I don't want to offend anybody by my lack of knowledge of the food, customs, etc. Thank you.

I suggest that *anyone* interested in Ethiopian cooking should head to H St. NE and the handsome dining room at Ethiopic. An easy and delicious way to begin your adventure is with the vegetarian sampler, an edible kaleidoscope of dips and salads, although you should add some doro wat (chicken in red pepper paste), too. The latter is one of the best-known dishes in the Ethiopian repertoire. 

Tom: Just wondering what is your favorite sweet to pick up on the go. For example, I love the dreambars and oatmeal chocoloate chip cookies at Potbelly's, or the choc chip cookies at Firehook.

For awhile, I was hooked on the salty oat cookies served at the various Teaism outlets. Honestly, though, I don't have a huge sweet tooth --  well, except for the occasional pound bag of peanut M & Ms! -- and I try not to eat sweets between review meals. 

 

Sounds boring, but I gotta cut back SOMEwhere and cutting back on wine is not an option.

I guess it's nice to know Mr. Voltaggio has a carryout in Frederick with mostly dcent food. But how many of your readers live/work there or are willing to make a long drive to Frederick for soup and sandwich. I suspect most of us are interested in what's good and available inside the Beltway, even in the areas where most of us work/live, e.g. within Metro. Frederick is a long way for lunch for most of us, I suspect.

The Post audience is wide and varied and I like to throw in the occasional exurban restaurant option for those who live outside the city, as well as for folks from here who enjoy getaways. Frederick isn't exactly Delaware, right?  Plus, Bryan Voltaggio is a celebrity chef with lots of followers. I'd be remiss not to check out places such as Lunchbox, featured in today's First Bite column.

Tom - just wanted to share what a wonderful meal my husband and I had at Graffiato on Saturday. It's probably in the top 10 of our favorite meals ever. We couldn't stop exclaiming over how delicious everything was, from the infamous pepperoni sauce with a pleasantly spicy kick, to the fight-over-it-good gnocchi with sauteed mushrooms, to the sweet/salty brussels sprouts where every leaf was a perfect crispness. We also enjoyed the creative pizza combinations (we had the Papa Smurf with potato, speck, gorgonzola, and caramelized onion) and the fall apart tender pork cheeks. Graffiato isn't perfect - the hanger steak was nothing to write home about, service was a bit inattentive, and prices are higher than I'd like for such small portions - but the good far outweighs the bad. I'm already thinking of how to work it into our rotation of special occasion dinners!

Score one for Mike Isabella! The chef-owner of Graffiato told me the other day that he was working the line both Friday and Saturday evenings.

Tom, thanks again for the chats, again. I remember reading somewhere in the pages of the post that Mr. Bajaj of Rasika fame was contemplating opening up an establishment that specialized in Indian-Chinese. Do we have an update on his progress? How long do I have to wait to be some 'Chicken 65'? And have you had any prior experience with this fusion of cuisine. It's really something exquisite when done right. And, as an Eve regular, I just want to know how was your recent trip to the Tasting Room this last Saturday evening?

Hmm. I don't recall my writing anything about Ashok Bajkaj doing anything fusion-related, but I recently had lunch at a restaurant I think you ought to try: Jewel of India, which my colleague Tim Carman previewed in the Food section recently. The kitchen serves the chicken 65, among other hybrid dishes you seem to crave.

Hi Tom, have you heard anything, good or bad, about the new restaurant in Woodley Park, DC Kitchen?

Well, having eaten there four times now, I definitely have something to say about the newcomer -- which I wrote about in the Magazine Feb. 26. 

 

Long story short: Fine addition to Woodley Park.

Hi Tom, I went to Pizzeria Orso to see if the new chef as improved the quality of the pizza. I'm sorry to say no, it hasn't improved. The ingredients are of good quality but they just don't cook the pizza long enough. We requested that the pizza be cooked well done and it came to us underdone. The bottom crust was soggy. During the meal, the waiter never came by so we couldn't complain at the time. However, I did tell him how disappointed we were and that we wouldn't return when he finally came to clear the dishes. The manager comped the dessert (the donuts, which were great) but the pizza is so bad that we won't be back. It is a shame because they have such potential.

I'm not sure when you dropped by, but there's a new chef at Orso, Will Artley, who *just* started cooking there Feb. 28. I'd definitely give him some time to get a feel for the pizza oven (and chances are good, there are others under him who know how to wield a paddle).

Tom, What's your favorite restaurant in Vegas? We have SW booked, but looking for something for the other night that will knock my socks off.

I have a number of places I enjoy eating in Sin City, but if cost is no object, book high in the Mandarin Oriental hotel at Twist by Pierre Gagnier.

 

The vista (from 23 floors above the Strip) is awesome and so is the French cooking, which was very similar to the food I experienced at Pierre Gagnier restaurant in Paris several years ago.

I am on a quest for fried pork. Namely, cracklins like I had at Cochon and chicharrones. Where's the best pork in town?

Ever had the airy pork rinds served with a dip of shrimp paste at Little Serow, the hot new Thai joint from Johnny Monis? I could eat those things by the truckful.

 

Chatters, where do you go for your porky pleasures?

What are you favorite brunch places in DC? Any hidden gems that nobody talks about? Thanks!!!

I did a round-up of three of the city's more unusual brunch spots a year ago. Here you go.

How about Bistro Cacao?

It's cozy, but I'm not crazy about the French cooking.  Admittedly, I haven't been there in awhile.

Hi Tom, My parents are meeting my fiancee's parents for the first time over dinner. We've made reservations at both America Eats and Bibiana but we can't decide. They both fit our requirements of having good food that isn't too adventurous (my parents aren't great in that department) and also not being so noisy that we can't hear each other (though this may end up being a mistake). Can you be our tiebreaker?? We respect and enjoy your reviews and would love your input. Thanks!

Both restaurants are interesting for different reasons, but  I'm going to steer your party to American Eats Tavern for the sole reason the pop-up won't be open past July 4. Well, that's not the only reason; the menu is a fascinating tour of where this country has come, and where it is, food-wise.  If there's any lull in the conversation, you can always talk about Prohibition-era drinks or the origins of turle soup or ...

women do this anywhere. I have observed it many times on the Metro bus. Who wants to sit in %%%%

That's pretty disgusting. Time and place for everything.

When two people are dining together, and one finishes his/her food, should the waiter be asking about removing that one plate? Or should he wait until the second person is finished before asking about removing plates? Thank You...

The proper thing to do is to wait until the person who is still eating is done, unless, of course, one or the other diner specifically asks that the empty plate be cleared.

Mr. S: Your last review is several years old. My wife and I haven't been there for some time, and are thinking of going early tonight before a Kennedy Center event. Have you been at Primi Piatti recently?

Not, recently, no. Can anyone else vouch for the Italian restaurant, based on a meal there in the past year or so?

Why is it than when I tell somebody I can't make a special drink or prepare a menu item they saw elsewhere they seem to resent and often even challenge me as to why??? Could you PLEASE just go back to that happy place elsewhere!!!

Are you a bar tender or a chef or a restaurant owner or a ...?  Details, please.

 

 

Dear Restauranteurs, We in Bethesda have way too many burger and pizza places. Stop opening new ones. We could really use a Korean place though. Thanks!

I agree. Hear that, would-be Bethesda restaurant operators?

Hi Tom! First of all, happy birthday to you. Secondly, my girlfriend and I will be attending the Wizards game on Wednesday night are are looking for a place to get a good late night dinner afterwards. Preferably someplace not too dressy, but a cool atmosphere would be nice. We are adventurous eaters and are up for most things. Thanks!

This Pisces thanks you for your good wishes.

 

Chinatown? I'd be inclined to stroll over to Oyamel for some tacos and margaritas, Sei for some sushi and cocktails or Zaytinya for a bunch of Greek and Turkish mezze. All have engaging bars, by the way.

Tom...have you been to 2941 since the renovation...any comments...

I have! My critique of the makeover comes out March 25 in the Magazine, earlier online.

The restaurant was Graffiato.

Hey, Graffiato! Why the over-communication?

Good chat, Tom. I'm rather surprised that nobody told the woman who was changing her baby's diaper on the booth's seat that she could take her baby to the establishment's Ladies' restroom to undergo this changing. I'm not sure I'd like to visit this establishment for lunch or dinner. If I did, I'd probably opt for a table rather than a booth.

Believe it or not, I've heard from diners who have witnessed diaper-changing on tables flanked by chairs, for all to see.

have you encountered any great carrot cake lately?

My SO bakes the *best* carrot cake, but I'm also fond of the 13- (or is it more?) layered confection at the Source.

 

 

Hi Tom, I am back in town after about 6 months away and am having trouble choosing from all the new options in the city. What would be your choice of 3 places to check out this weekend before and after a bit of museum seeing maybe? I will drive so can go pretty much anywhere, just want to see the new stuff in DC. Thanks!

New and hot?

 

Any such list would have to lead with Fiola, Mintwood Place and Little Serow (rhymes with "sparrow") as well as Elisir and possibly Boundary Road on H St. NE.

Tom, have you been to the aforementioned restaurant? I've made a reservation to meet up with a friend for a birthday celebration. Should I keep it or go elsewhere?

Unum is a nice addition to Georgetown. Go for the beet salad with goat cheese and vanilla vinaigrette to start and the Indian-style lamb shanks to follow.

This past Saturday we were saved (starving from odd-time flight back home) by Vickie Reh at Buck's who had and might still have Shad served over shad roe - it was wonderful.

Buck's to the rescue, too, it sounds like.

 

The roe is easy to find; the seasonall fish is a dearer commodity, in part because it's tricky to fillet (lots of sharp bones in shad).

My wife and I have decided to do dinner around Penn Quarter this Friday, and we're looking for something different to try. She's just gotten a bonus, so we're not as concerned about price. We've done all the Andres restaurants, SEI, Poste, and Zola, and while we like them all, we're in the mood to try somewhere for the first time. Suggestions on a place that might still have a table open?

That leaves you with a ton of options, including the wine-themed Proof, the supper clubby 701, the aforementioned Rasika ... and on and on.

i have witnessed this too -in a coffee shop in arlington (really please go to the restroom) and on airplanes in the seats (once again, restroom please). I'm not trying to be insensitive to moms and dads, but it's not right to expose all of us to fecal matter while we are eating or in other close quarters when other options are there

Agreed.

Tom, you should really get yourself invited to Sen. Franken's Congressional Hot Dish Off this afternoon (see today's Roll Call). It's a Minnesota casserole competition among the delegation. Sen. Klobuchar won last year with "a ground-beef-and-tater-tot mash-up."

"Mash-Up" sounds like a Nascar event! And like something I ate tons of back home in southwestern Minnesota!

 

This just in:

 

  "I am the Executive Chef of The Oceanaire Seafood Room in Penn Quarter, and I would happily like to inform you that we will be featuring shad roe on our menu for the next few weeks.  I bring in a limited amount of the roe on a daily basis, and would love to have you sample the classical style preparation I am featuring with it.  Please let me know if you would be able to join us, and I would gladly set aside an order for you.

Cheers,
Sean Sanders

 

Chef, you got any *fish* with that roe? Or just the eggs?

Why can't you review all the restaurants in my area? I don't want to leave a one mile radius and I find it so annoying that you don't stick to the restaurants that I want to go to. It's time for a change. Cater to my whims or I will continue to complain!!! ; P

HA!

 

I know you're jesting, but that earlier poster wasn't. I'll continue to offer a mix of cuisine styles, price ranges --- and locations -- in my weekly Food section previews and Magazine restaurant reviews.

 

The difference, for those who might not be aware: the former are previews, usually based on one or two visits, while the latter are star-rated after three or more meals.

The best carrot cake I've ever had is at Eventide. They spike the frosting with red hots and it gives the most interesting twist on what can admittedly be a rather dull dessert. It's the perfect complement to the moist cake too.

Good to know. Thanks for chiming in.

Tom - Do you have any opinion of this place?

The cooking school near the Post?

Maybe the folks at OpenTable can update their software so restaurants can track and share information on flaky diners who regularly cancel reservations, or are no-shows, or who make multiple reservations on the same night. That way, they'll know who needs a reminder and who can actually be trusted to show up.

Doesn't OT already do that, or some of those things? I ask, because I remember once double-booking at two different restaurants -- by accident, I swear! -- and being unable  to complete the second transaction because of the first.

You'll be glad to know someone just invoked your name on the TakomaDC neighborhood listserv - someone complained about both the service and the food at a neighborhood eatery, and someone else pointed out that, as you always say, the time to complain is while you're still in the restaurant.

Victory is ours.

We are a group of about 10 looking for a fun and not-too-expensive birthday dinner place...lots of places are booked already...any ideas?

In DC? You might try Himalayan Heritage or Las Canteras in Adams Morgan, Ethiopic on H St. NE, Matchbox on the Hill or in Chinatown, Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park -- for starters.

I know this is a strange question, but where downtown can you get a shot of wheatgrass? My go-to used to be Juice Joint on Vermont Avenue, which is closed for renovations.

Until that nifty little cafe reopens, can anyone ID another source for wheatgrass?

look at it this way: if you were the kid would you like your bottom to be open in the middle of a restaurant? or any public place for that matter? I certainly wouldn't. I think diapers should be changed in the bathroom/car with sanitary gels/wipes etc and away from any eating surface. I don't even want to think where the dirty diaper and the hands of the person who touched the diaper touched after the change. I think the manager should have suggested a solution. I am pretty sure there are some health code regulations related to this. I mean the employees are required to wash their hands when they go to the bathroom, what about the patrons? P.S. This from an aunt who regularly changes diapers for 10-month old twins and a 2,5 year old niece.

Let this be the last of the diaper coments (I mean, we're edging toward lunch, right?)

Oof. I've been there and I've done that. It usually results from the following: 1) Totally exhausted parent just doesn't think, especially if everything needed is already in the bag next to you, 2) It's too cold/too hot outside to lug everything back out, 3) there is no baby-changing area in the bathroom (happens A LOT), 4) the bathroom is disgusting. I honestly never thought about how wrong that was until just now. I suppose I regret it. But I'll be honest, if it's a highly-trafficked family restaurant, I would probably do it again.

Thanks for the honesty (and the background).

I love the place, and since Anthony Chittum departed the neighborhood for Vermillion a few years ago, Primi Piatti is now my only pre-Kennedy Center choice. The owner is charming, too. Go old school with pasta and red sauce.

Great to know. Thanks for responding in timely fashion.

We had some lovely shad roe amandine at Praline in Bethesda last week (from their specials menu, which also featured delicious veal kidneys). Very reasonably priced, under $20 each.

Love Praline. Or at least I really, really like the French bistro. Not surprised to hear it does well by shad roe.

there's a juice place in Bethesda called Puree. By the way, I second the need for a korean place in Bethesda and less pizza and burgers!

Ah, but Puree isn't close to our DC poster. But thanks.

Well I can scratch seeing that phrase written by a major restaurant critic off of my bucket list.

There's a bet among my frequent dining companions (known in the trade as FDCs) that I won't be able to use "vomit" in my column. I hope they're right.

 

Why do I feel as if Gene Weingarten is possessing me right now?

 

On THAT inconclusive note, I bid you a lovely lunch and rest of the week. See you back here, same time, March 14.

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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