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

May 16, 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.

Do you know what happened to Zola Wine and Kitchen? It is closing so suddenly. We just got an email yesterday saying that Tuesday was their last day. It will really be missed, lunch there was great and it seemed crowded. While I realize that looking crowded and being profitable are two different things - I don't understand why they wouldn't give people more notice. I and many other people would have made it a point to have one last meal there, they would have made a lot of money in the last week. It filled a unique niche of reasonable cost and very high quality and it will be missed. Any information you have would be appreciated.

A manager at Zola, around the corner from Zola Wine & Kitchen, confirmed this morning that the latter is closed -- except for the wine portion of the operation, which is open through Friday and is offering 50 percent off all vino.  No reason was given for the sudden shuttering of ZW&K.

 

Happy Wednesday, gang. I'm pleased to report that the Spring Dining Guide is live on the site now. As in years past, the theme is Then & Again, updates of  15 previously reviewed restaurants. Please let me know what you think.

 

Lots of questions. Let's get crackin'!

Had a business dinner at The Palm in Tyson's last night. When the waiter brought the check he laid down a flyer and gave us a 90-second pitch about joining their frequent diner program for $25. We all found this to be, um, tacky. I'm sure that this was a company directive, so it didn't affect our tip to the server. They already had a table-tent on the table that advertised it and that was fine. The sales pitch just took it to far. I'm sure that you've suffered through these pitches. What are your thoughts? I'd also be curious to know what any restauranteurs who practice them think. I've got to think that servers hate doing them. Do they get incentives? Thanks!

I reached out to the restaurant's New York-based public relations firm for a response from owner Bruce Bozzi.

 

Are servers required to pitch it at the table? The vast majority of enrollments come from the restaurants, and the only way our customers will learn about the program is from our servers, or other customers (we do have some information on the table, and a mention on the menu about it).  We certainly encourage our servers to mention the program at the table.

Do servers receive incentives for telling customers about the promotion? Yes, servers are incentivized for each new membership they sell, however, our training materials emphasize that the pitch needs to feel natural and come at the proper moment during dining.  The last thing we want to do is alienate a customer by coming on too strong. 

How long has The Palm had the program? The 837 Club program is almost 14 years old.  We piloted the program right in the DC location before rolling out nationwide.  It’s become a cornerstone of our marketing activities.  Our 837 Club members are like an extended family!!

 

Tom here. I don't like verbal sales pitches any more than this poster does. A table tent is promotion enough in my book. 

 

The headline about a Czech restaurant in Le Droit Park really struck me. What are the chances that we would have seen either of those terms in the Post food section 10 years ago, much less in the same sentence?!

Gotta love it, right? Both the arrival of a Czech kitchen and a cozy dining room in that part of the city. 

 

The chicken schitzel at Bistro Bohem, the subject of today's First Bite preview,  is a terrific version, by the way.  Eating the dish, I felt as if I were in Vienna ("or Prague," as the server gently chided me). 

I visit Arlington, VA several times a year to see my daughter and her family. My daughter works in D.C., and I go into the city to visit museums, architectural sites, and places of interest. Usually, Rebecca and I meet for lunch once or twice. We like to eat at downtown venues so Rebecca can get back to work in time, and we like places with local atmosphere, fairly wide menu options (I don't eat meat/poultry and my daughter does) and where the price is right, e.g. usually about $60 or thereabouts for two. Any suggestions? Susan

A couple places, both Metro accessible, come to mind. One is Mio, the stylish Latin American restaurant with entrees (including vegetarian risotto and a fish option or two for you) averaging $17. Another is Zaytinya, which serves dozens of Greek and Turkish small plates in an airy environment.  

 

We live in upper NW but have been house-hunting on the Hill, an area totally new to us (kind of sad given how long we've been in DC). In any case, stumbled upon Mi Vercinidad, apparently the Cuban outpost of a tiny Latin American restaurant DC chain in the area. Amazing Ropa Vieja and an even tastier pork dish (por mozart? Lots of odd spellings on the menu--often a good sign). Have you tied it Tom? We'll be back--and not just because of the free tequilla shots they gave us at the end.

Free firewater! I'm there -- well, not yet, but the restaurant sounds promising. Thanks for writing.

Hi Tom! If you were having dinner in Capitol Hill, where would you go? There are two somewhat new restaurants in the neighborhood that makes me cringe and I think they're owned by the same owner because the layouts are the same and the food taste very similar to one another. Service is friendly, but the cocktails are not good and the food is mediocre. I always feel ripped off when I leave these two restaurants but I feel that's all we have in this neighborhood. Shout out to awesome chefs!!! Please go to Capitol Hill, we need you!! OK, I'm done. Sorry for the rant

I agree with you. With precious few exceptions, Capitol Hill is like Bethesda: both have lots of restaurants, but also abundant mediocrity. I can pretty much count on one hand the spots I would eat at on my own dime. They include Seventh Hill, Bis, Matchbox for pizza and mini-burgers, the Monocle for a heaping helping of nostalgia and ... and ... nothing else comes to mind.

I know this is a difficult question. My work has tasked me with arranging a dinner for 12 professionals that are being brought in from across the country. These are sophisticated folks --- in food and other areas. Unfortunately, I am limited to a $50 budget per person including drinks, tax and tip. Any ideas of DC restaurants to "fit this bill"?

How adventurous is your group? Ethiopic on H St. NE would be a great, only-in-Washington experience, but not everyone can appreciate a meal eaten with one's hand.  Standard in Logan Circle has terrific barbecue and beer, but the seating is mostly outdoors. Masala Art in Upper NW serves very good Indian and offers a stylish setting. Then there's Mourayo, the handsome Greek restaurant in Dupont Circle.

 

That help?

Hi Tom. I read your chat each week and love your reviews. My mother and I were talking about you and we disagreed on how to pronounce your name. I said "Site-sma," and she said "Seets-ma." How do you prounce it? (We fondly started referring to you as "Tommy S.")

Tommy! I haven't been called that since I was five years old (but I'll take it, I'll take it, and thank you for the question).

 

The correct way to say my last name is: SEET-suh-ma

Hi Tom! After a great few years in DC, we are moving back to the land of the beige buffet (Fargo). If you were faced with the same situation, what are the 2 or 3 restaurants you would want to try before you moved? We are not super adventurous eaters (although I love Rasika), but are willing to be open-minded to get a few great meals in before we leave. Thanks! I've enjoyed your chat over the years!

Thank *you* for spending some time here.

 

If you haven't been to them yet, be sure to find time for the northeastern Thai cooking at Little Serow in Dupont Circle, the revamped dining room at Jaleo in Penn Quarter and the lusty Italian fare at Obelisk (or the richer menu at the vibrant Fiola).  I can almost guarantee, they have no equals in North Dakota.

Any suggestions? Anything ranging from really nice to good local for breakfast or lunch. Thanks.

I'm waaaay overdue for a trip to Spain, but two places you'll want to include on your itinerary are the open-air tapas stand, Pinotxo, located in the famous Boqueria food market, and the seafood temple Rias de Galicia, where I first tasted goose barnacles and recall eating *amazing* garlic-perfumed baby eels with tiny wooden forks.

Going to Indianapolis next week for a conference and will have some time on my own...where should I eat? WHAT should I eat? Thank you~

One of my FDCs  (aka Frequent Dining Companions) lived there last year and reports that the following are all solid choices in Indianapolis: Oakley Bistro on 86th St., Naisa Pan Asian Cafe on Fort Wayne Ave. and Santorinis for good Greek on Prospect St. 

Tom, Etiquette question for you. I am taking my husband to Obelisk tomorrow night for his birthday. I have been earnestly trying to watch my calorie intake as of late, and while I am not going to deprive myself at the special dinner tomorrow night, I don’t want to stuff myself silly. Which leads to my question: in a setting like Obelisk, is it appropriate to ask for any leftovers of the courses to be packed up? Also – any favorites we should order if they are on the menu tomorrow night?

The menu changes quite often at Obelisk, where I've found the antipasti to be abundant, the pastas ethereal and the entrees a tad less interesting than what comes before or after them. By all means, ask to take home what you can't or won't finish. I certainly have!

Tom -- love these discussions! Did you read the long NYT article last week about Craig Claiborne? What's your take on him?

I thought Pete Wells did a great job of capturing  Claiborne's many contributions and abundant sorrows.

 

I met the late food editor and author late in his life, at his pad in New York.  The interview made me sad.  Sorry to say, he got buzzed that afternoon, and took a call from his beau in Florida with whom he wanted to spend his life but couldn't, because the doctor was married. The conversation was painful to overhear.

 

On the other hand, what a rich life! Claiborne made so many careers for so many people and was always very helpful to those of us coming up in the writing ranks. There's really no one like him --- or James Beard or Julia Child -- around anymore.

Hi Tom - I'm heading to Vegas next month (leaving the baby at home, hurray!). Do you have any recommendations on places we can't miss? Thanks!

I seem to get this question every week. My previous recommendations stand: Bouchon for casual French, Raku for very good Japanese grilled food off the Strip, Jaleo and China Poblano in the new Cosmopolitan for excellent Spanish and Asian-Latin American, respectively.

 

  Have fun! I know you'll eat well.

Tom, For the first time ever, you haven't written about Palena. What gives, dude?

Not sure what you mean. Palena simply wasn't one of the 15 restaurants I opted to update in my spring guide. I mean, I only had space for so many restaurants.

Hi Tom! Any recommendations for Philadelphia restaurants? All price ranges and cuisines are okay, the only limitation is that the restaurant should have at least a few vegetarian options. Thanks!

I was mightily impressed by the recent Italian dinner I had at Le Virtu at 1927 East Passyunk Ave, home to some of the best cured meats I've had anywhere. The chef, Joe Cicala, is a DC native who has worked at both Del Posto in NYC and the late Galileo here in Washington.  My Postcard from Philadelphia has some additional tips for you.

I have a friend coming to DC for the first time for business, staying in the Dupont Circle area. Any suggestions for a place to take her for dinner? I thought we'd start with drinks on the roof of the W so she could see the city but I'd like to try and keep dinner under $100 for 2.

For something light, try Sushi Taro for very good sushi in serene environs. For simple Italian, head to Al Tiramisu for its fine pastas (but watch out for the high-priced specials!).  Meanwhile, Sette Osteria has the advantage of al fresco seating and good pizza.

I recently discovered Kaz which seems very good to me. I know Sushi Taro is great but very expensive. Any great ones I'm missing that ideally wouldn't break the bank?

I like Kaz Sushi Bistro, especially when the maestro is behind the sushi bar. But I have to give the nod to Sushi Taro for overall best, setting and service included, followed perhaps by Kushi.

Tom, we have an early afternoon appointment at Sibley on Friday and need a place for lunch? Is there anything around the hospital or should we shoot for somewhere on MacArthur just north of Georgetown? Any recommendations are appreciated. Thanks.

Praline is nearby, and one of the sweetest stops for French cooking (and bakery goods) in the area. Also close and delicious:  the Belgian-themed Et Voila!

Hi Tom. Thanks for chatting. I really enjoy them! My parents are visiting in a few weeks and I was thinking about trying out Acqua al 2 with them. I've never been, and I see that your last review was 2 years ago. Any changes, updates or new thoughts since your review that I should consider? Or perhaps you have a better suggestion altogether?

It's not a favorite. Are you looking for Italian or something on the Hill, or both?

Any thoughts on a restaurant in Boston that I could get a gift certificate to as a wedding gift? Possibly somewhere that offers a beer pairing menu, but nothing too stuffy / "foodie" - the bride and groom like good beer and good food, but they're not snobby about it and are generally pretty down to earth, casual people. I'm thinking maybe the Boston equivalent of Birch and Barley?

I think Coppa might be what your newlyweds might enjoy. It's definitely lowkey and delicious, with an emphasis on pizza and offal.  Another option is Island Creek Oyster Bar.

Hi Tom, I'd love to know how you keep the information about different restaurant names in various cities and DC so you can respond to our never-ending questions. Do you have an app? database? excel sheet? or a plain old notebook? Or do you just know all these places off the top of your head??

Some recommendations I know off the top of my head, but I also surround myself with dining guides and restaurant notes from my trips when I host this chat.  The hour goes by very quickly for me!

Hello Tom, Where would you go for Indian Restaurant in fairfax ?

No question: Curry Mantra, recently expanded and with an even more extensive menu than when I previewed the place.

Tom - I trust your reviews in every restaurant I recommend. I am now in a situation where I have to go to NYC (for the first time) for work and want to explore the city's food scene as much as possible. I am willing to be adventurous in my food choices, but my budget is $75 for dinner max including wine. I will likely be dining by myself as well. Will you work your magic and direct me to a fun NYC restaurant?

Glad to be of help.

 

I relish the Austrian food at Seasonal, the Korean cooking at the tiny Danji on W. 52nd (go early, it's TINY) and the tapas at both branches of  Boqueria, which now has an outlet (and a very good one) in Washington.

so how do you really feel?

Ha! But you know what? I bet the place stays packed.  It's convenient and lively and the drinks are well made.

Help Need some recommendations for dinner next week in NYC and maybe also a lunch recommendation. We are adventurous eaters but are not trying to break the bank on this trip ( already did that at Le Bernadin a year ago..but worth it). Thinking "the Dutch" or "danji"..

Everyone I've sent to Locanda Verde comes back raving about the place. Food pals are also reporting nice things about The Ten Bells, on Broome St. Haven't been, but it's supposed to be a great watering hole. I love Sushi Yasuda near Grand Central for lunch, but it can get expensive if you don't watch how much raw fish and/or sake you're knocking back.

Get off the strip, cab over to Chinatown and eat at Ichiza. I was there a few days ago, and it's still awesome. It's a very low-key, hole in the wall izakaya-style place.

Sounds promising. (Raku, as I mentioned, is also off the Strip, an easy can ride from the major hotels.)

Hi Tom, how did you decided on these 15 restaurants but not others? Also, I think we interpret the Spring Guide as "places to eat this Spring" whereas for you it's an opportunity to (re)review places you haven't been to in a while. Not a criticism but simply difference of perception I think. So, what are the top 5 places you like to go on a nice spring day when you don't have to do it for work?

Gosh, I try to make it clear in both the introduction to the guide and elsewhere that this collection of restaurants is simply a chance to re-evaluate places I haven't been to in awhile.

 

A number of factors went into deciding which establishments to highlight. Ray's the Steaks, for instance is a top  stop for online readers, and I thought the steak house merited a fresh look. Le Vieux Logis hadn't been revisited by the Magazine since 1996.  I threw that update in there for novelty.

 

Where would I go right now on my own? Probably somewhere outside: Blue Duck Tavern, maybe, or Tabard Inn or Ashby Inn or 701 or Zaytinya.

I love Et Voila, also don't forget Black Salt if you like seafood.

Yes to BS.

This might be a little pricier, but near the metro: Kellari taverna. Or, not so metro accessible but great lunch and good prices: Founding Farmers.

Obviously, you have not clicked on my spring guide!

Hello Tom! Have you done a postcard on Lima yet? I will be travelling there with a friend in September and we're getting an early start on planning. Both of us are pretty adventurous eaters with decent budgets. Thanks!!

I chose to highlight a single restaurant rather than a collection of places for my recent Postcard from Lima. I urge you to try the innovative and delicious Central there.

I'm constantly amazed at the number of people here who can't read. You constantly spell out what your criteria are, for regular reviews and for your semiannual guides, and you get queries like this. How do you not turn sour? Is it that midwestern stiff upper lip?

Bless you!

 

(No one can see me roll my eyes. That's the cool thing about hiding behind a screen.)

It doesn't have to be on the hill or Italian! I'm just looking for something semi-casual in that price range - preferably with some D.C. charm. Past visits have included Jaleo, Rasika, Central, Founding Farmers.

Gotcha. Try Mintwood Place, the new Rasika West End or Fiola then.

One thing about this place is they never get your order right. I've been there on a number of occasions, and any time we had a substitution they said "sure, we can do that" and we still got whatever it comes with. This day and age when everybody customizes what they want, how hard is it? Come on! Since the other restaurants can do it (or tell me they can't which is fine) I am assuming they simply don't care... Frankly, I don't go there unless I am invited to be a part of a meal. Both the food and service is mediocre, never impresses me. And for my money, there is always options, now more than ever.

You are preaching to the choir!

I realize this is your opinion versus my opinion, but as a person who spent several years living in Japan and then subsequently been looking longer in the U.S. for the equivalent of that country's sushi, I have to quibble with your continued recommendation of Sushi Taro. First, albeit besides the point, NYC and L.A. offer much better sushi than DC. Second, Taro, given the prices they are charging, is good, but only good. It would be like going to Tokyo and paying $30 for a hot dog, even it was a good one. For my money, Makoto is a much better value.

But Makoto is a very exclusive place, hard to get into and not all that friendly. The tasting menu never seems to change there. I like it, and what it represents, but I think Sushi Taro is more accessible for the above poster and company.

Going to celebrate our 10 year anniversary at the IALW next month. First time for both of us. Any advice or suggestions or anything we need to know? We are not staying at the IALW but a B&B nearby.

On a practical note, plan on spending $450 a couple with cocktails in the lounge, a good bottle of vino, tax and tip.  On a fun note, be sure to take dessert in the garden if the weather coooperates and end your evening with a chat with the star of the show in his amazing kitchen.

Tom, I think you're too harsh (although I've only been to the Potomac FF). The breakfasts are excellent, especially the beignets, which we fought over. Husband & I enjoy the tomato soup & grilled cheese combo for $10! And he also raves about the chicken pot pie. The quince cobbler was excellent.

How can you argue with me about a restaurant you haven't been to, ma'am?

Sounds like your service was about the same as my boyfriend's and mine when we went to Le Vieux Logis last month. Fifteen minutes went by without even seeing a menu. We had to get up to pay our bill because we didn't think someone would ever return to our table. I'd say our use of a LivingSocial deal or our young age was the reason for our bad service, but we didn't even offer up the deal until we paid, and it sounds like you experienced similar service. Food and service weren't worth the prices.

I really wanted to like the place and I spent a small fortune during several dinners to find a few nice things to say about LVL. (I was the diner the owner walked away from in mid-sentence, fyi.) But ultimately, I'm spending my next old-fashioned night abroad at La Chaumiere in G'town.

where can I go for great cocktails without too much noise? I want to catch up with a friend so we want to talk at the bar, he likes classics made properly, and I like to try new things made with excitement (and without mixes or syrups)

The terrace at Quill in the Jefferson Hotel is where you  want to find yourselves.

When is it coming out?

It's online now and in print this weekend.

"Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves. " Thanks for doing these chats!

You are most welcome.

Is there a big difference between the Washington & Potomac FF's then? I thought they would basically serve the same food cooked the same way. Have you been to the Potomac FF?

I have yet to visit the Maryland outpost. I want to keep an open mind, but ...

Easy Tom or you are going to drive away readers and chatters.

Why is that?

Perhaps they should be reminded that a lot of people hate their families and want nothing to do with them.

OUCH!

Hi, I am a "foodie" and dine alone 99% of the time. AS much as I enjoy the restaurants mentioned, as a single diner I always enjoy sitting at one of the bars at Eataly and Birreria (rooftop at Eataly) as there always seem to be people willing to chat. Also there is so much going on around, I consider it as entertainment. Another great place for a single person is Bar Boulud across from Lincoln Center. Both places have tasting plates and or small portions so I can taste more than just one appetizer/entree, and they have great wines by the glass with bartenders willing to let you taste something before you order. Wish we had places like that here!

We do, we do! They include the bars at Fiola, the Source, Cashion's Eat Place, Bibiana and a bunch of other places that time prevents me from flagging at the moment.

Tom, I am so sad to see your new one star review for Passionfish. Not long ago it was the best dinner spot in Reston. Is there another spot nearby you would recommend instead?

Again, I really wanted to like Passionfish. But the venue is coasting these days. (Like most of the restaurants in the spring guide, I visited the establishment twice, with a group, to come to that conclusion.)

I might suggest America Eats, particularly since it's closing soon. Folks I've taken from out of town have liked the history on the menu and you could visit the exhibit at the Archives

Super idea!  Dinner and entertainment in one package.

in Ulan Bator? (OK, I'm teasing. Keep up the great work!)

You know, you almost had me for a moment!

Where should I eat? Staying in Providence, nearby is OK too.

Here's my most recent Postcard from Providence. Persimmon is definitely worth the short drive, by the way, an awesome mom and pop with some great cooking.

 

That's a wrap for today, everybody. Thanks for spending the hour with me. Let's do it again next Wednesday.  Bye for now.

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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