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

May 11, 2011

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema answers your questions, listens to your suggestions and even entertains your complaints about Washington dining.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Tom, I greatly appreciate your weekly chats and candid insights! I managed to get a reservation for minibar next week, and I am SO excited - have been trying to get one for months, so the anticipation is really building! From reading your reviews and other food blogs/reviews, there are several signature dishes that I am really looking forward to - the "philly cheesesteak," the "bagels and lox," the steamed brioche bun with caviar, etc. Seeing as this is probably the first (and possibly only) time I will have the opportunity to eat here, what are the chances that all these signature dishes will appear on the menu that night? I'm sure that the experience will be enjoyable no matter what, but after reading and salivating over pictures of these dishes for years, I don't want to be disappointed if I'm not able to try these. On a related note - I am trying to subdue my excitement in order not to ruin the experience - I've found that usually the more highly anticipated the restaurant, the higher my expectations - and the harder it is for the restaurant to reach perfection. I've been to Michelin starred/James Beard restaurants that have disappointed me, only because I've expected so much. I guess also when I'm spending my own money, it means a lot more and I want to make sure it's worth my while. Any tips on how to avoid this phenomenon? Congratulations to Jose Andres for his much deserved James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef!

Lucky, lucky you, scoring such a hot ticket, and right after Andres's impressive (and well-deserved) award for Outstanding Chef Monday night in New York.  (Get the full scoop on the winners here.)

 

I love that you've done your homework for what I know will be a fascinating evening. No two meals are quite alike at Minibar, however, and if a dish or two you've read about and want to try aren't served when you're there, you can be sure there will be one or two replacements that will be just as thrilling.

 

Bottom line: Go with an open mind.

 

Good morning, everyone. I'm just back from a weekend in New York, where I ate at Hill Country in advance of reviewing its DC spinoff; the disappointing and expensive new Junoon in the Flatiron district; and a delightful new Korean spot called Danji on W. 52nd, where I had some amazing fried tofu and spicy pork belly sliders.

 

Because I've got some pressing deadlines today, I'm going to cut out around 11:45 a.m.  Hate to do that, but the prospect of  empty white space in the Travel section this Sunday is even more distasteful. (See my archive of Postcards here.)

 

I see lots of raised hands out there. Let's begin.

I'm an avid reader and rely on your advice all the time! However, I'm stumped on a location for a 60th Birthday dinner with my family of four from out of town. Would like entrees to be $15-20, not a tapas restaurant, and not Indian (although I love Rasika), and in DC or Alexandria, please. What would you recommend? Thanks!

Do you like old-fashioned French cooking? I had a great time returning to La Chaumiere in Georgetown for the forthcoming spring dining guide, which should go online later this afternoon. (Edit: It's up!) Eating pike quenelles and liver with shallot sauce beneath a beamed ceiling is transporting.

Went to Michel Richard at Tysons last Friday for a birthday dinner. The food was spectacular, the service -- some of the worst I've ever had at a restaurant, let alone one at this level/price point. We were alternately ignored then rushed through dinner, got laughable wine "help" and sat 40 minutes with empty drinkware lined up across the table before having to chase down the check. My husband said "well, it's a newish place" but I thought that six months was long enough to work out the kinks and get it right. What say you?

I say your husband is a lot more patient than you and I are. Michel has been open since October, which is plenty of time for a place to iron out its service wrinkles. Plus, it's not as if Michel Richard's latest is offering preview prices to eat there. Curious if you complained to anyone who could make things right, or better?

I think I am a good "tipper" when eating in a restaurant but have always wondered, what's a proper tip for carry out? Thanks

I get this question all the time and I think the answer depends in part on what and how much you order. Two or three bucksfor a $15 or $20 take-out meal from a neighborhood place sounds right to me. Than again, I'm a former waiter.

 

For those of you who say you don't tip on carry-out orders, bear in mind that someone has to take down your order, give it to the kitchen with any special requests, make sure you have the utensils you need and your order is complete and finally, ring it up. So what might sound like self-service to the customer actually involves someone else's labor.

 

Chatters, let me know what you think.

Good Morning, Tom. I am a Maryland native who spent several years working near the Brandywine Valley (which covers parts of Delaware and Pennsylvania). I suggest to the chatter who wanted food options in the Brandywine Valley the following: Pizza by Elizabeths on Route 52 in Greenville, DE for excellent gourmet pizza and a great bar, La Tolteca on 202 in Wilmington for reasonably priced, excellent and authentic Mexican, or for a fancy, pricey, but worth it meal, Gilmore's in West Chester, PA. Thanks for the chats! You make my Wednesdays!

And *you* just made someone else's! Thanks for following up on the earlier request. Much obliged.

 

Another chatter asked about Kauai recently. Beth Chang, my Magazine editor who has relatives in Hawaii, passed me the following:

 

"I haven't been to Kauai in years, but it looks like Da Imu Hut, on the highway near the charming town of Hanapepe, is still getting rave reviews for local food. No ambiance, but good eats. Duana's Ono Char-Burger, in Anahola, on your way to the famed beach in Hanalei, where "South Pacific" was shot, is great as well. Outdoor seating only. True foodies might be interested in viewing the salt ponds, also near Hanapepe, which are the only natural salt ponds left in the state. Both white salt and pink salt, which is believed to have medicinal qualities, are made there. You can't enter the ponds, but you may be lucky enough to see someone working. The salt can't be sold--only given as a gift. The nearby Salt Pond Beach Park is a nice place for swimming. "

 

Thanks, boss.

 

 

Hi Tom, Any thoughts on M. Armstrong's Twitter photo reaction to her husband's James Beard loss on Monday? Do you think this reflects poorly on the D.C. dining scene? http://yfrog.com/h220597808j

I think it's the honest reaction of a wife who has just heard her husband's name mispronounced in front of a room of his peers and was disappointed to see him not win Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic for the fifth time. 

 

"Sometimes we're four stars" (as in Restaurant Eve), Meshelle Armstrong explained the photo just moments ago, "and sometimes we're the Chipper!" (a little looser, in other words).  

HI TOM, I LOVE READING YOUR STUFF. MY QUESTION PERTAINS TO PROPER ETIQUETTE FOR PROPOSING AT A RESTAURANT. I'VE GOT RESERVATIONS NEXT MONTH AT A NICE PLACE IN DC. IF I WANTED THE SERVER TO INCLUDE THE RING WITH DESSERT, HOW WOULD I GO ABOUT PROPERLY ARRANGING THIS SCENARIO? THANKS

Enlist the help of a maitre d' or manger by calling in advance to let him or her know what you'd like to do. 

 

If you have time, you should meet that person and go over the strategy in the restaurant. You don't want to be seated in the middle of the dining room, for instance, for such an intimate moment.

 

Be careful where you put the ring, too. Champagne flutes, for instance, are a poor idea. And you don't want to risk your date chipping her tooth, either, so don't hide the jewelry in whipped cream or some such.

 

Best of luck -- and let us know how it all works out!

Hi Tom - I've just spent the last 8 months at graduate school in NYC - away from my husband! I'm back working in DC this summer and can imagine that I've missed a ton of great new restaurant openings. Can you recommend some of the best new places that have opened while I've been gone? We are open to all prices/locations! Thanks so much - Emily.

Good morning, Emily. I think you'll find delicious reasons to be eating back in Washington at Atlas Room (modern American/great cocktails) on H St. NE; Bayou (think po boys and crawfish cheesecake) downtown; Fiola (Italian from Fabio Trabocchi) in Penn Quarter; Mandu (fun Korean) on lower K St. NW; Curry Mantra for the obvious and great goat biryani in Fairfax City; Pho Viet (a mom and pop serving noodle soup and more in a tidy storefront) in Columbia Heights; and the penny-paved Lincoln (small plates of familiar American dishes) downtown.

 

There are more, but that list should keep you busy for awhile.

hi Tom, I rarely get to read and follow along to the chat live. I try to catch up ASAP but sometimes I don't get to read what went down till a few days later and for the life of me I cannot find the chat transcript on the mobile edition of the post. I sometimes see a link on Thursday morning but after that you are impossible to find. I go to the 'lifestyle' section and then to 'food' but never see a link to your chat. What gives?

Hi there, you can find discussion transcripts at the bottom of the mobile site: mobile.washingtonpost.com. Just click on the "Discussions" header to see a complete list. It looks like we only present a maximum of 10 or so chat transcripts, so best to check in by Thursday if possible to catch Tom's transcript before it's replaced by newer chats. Meanwhile, our mobile folks will look into providing a longer list.

If you go to the Food section under Lifestyle and scroll about a third of the way down the page, you'll see a Tom Sietsema box with a list of links on the right side. Click on the third link "Discussion: Ask Tom" to get to a list of all of Tom's recent chats. Hope this helps.

Hi Tom, Headed to New Orleans this weekend. Any suggestions for a memorable meal around the French Quarter? Perfectly happy with a dive, hole-in-the wall.

My (almost-finished) Postcard from New Orleans goes up Friday online. But if I could eat at only one restaurant there right now, it would be the meaty Cochon in the Warehouse District, which has a terrific deli and wine bar next door.  Cochon Butcher makes one of  the city's best muffalettas.

I asked this last week but it wasn't published - I will be in Jacksonville for Memorial day, and I was wondering if you (or any readers) had recommendations for good, local places to eat. Not looking for anything too fancy, just authentic food with a local flavor. Will be in Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Fernandina Beach area. Thanks!

Jacksonville, anyone?

Hi Tom, Can you recommend a restaurant for lunch near Penn Quarter? I'll be in the area with three co-workers and we have the afternoon off following meetings that morning. They're adventurous eaters, but probably wouldn't want to spend more than $15/20 per person. I've already looked into Jaleo, but would love some other suggestions that range from quick to sitdown/leisurley (we've done Merzi and Matchbox in the past). Thanks!

Try Hill Country for barbecue, Pho DC  (in Chinatown) for lotus root salad  and grilled pork on noodles, maybe lunch at the bar at 701, where $15 gets you a glass of wine and a choice of five entrees.

I'm young and like good food but am not rich. What is the best place in the Baltimore/DC area for a good date without breaking the bank (for my budget less than $150 for two without drinks).

I have a soft spot for the second floor dining room at Perry's in Adams Morgan. The lighting is gentle, you can talk without raising your voice and the colors (mint-green, dark wood) register warmth. The American cooking  -- pork chop with rustic potato salad, crab cakes with twice=fried potatoes, any dessert with fruit -- is also very much to my taste. Entrees range from $16 to $26.

When is Mr. Monis due to win top chef? Also do you think he will stay here long term or eventually branch out into some different opportunitiies outside of Komi?

Johnny Monis of Komi was promoted from Rising Star to Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic this year because he's older than 30. I can see him being nominated again (and again and again).

 

It can take awhile for people (in this case, voters) to try a given restaurant, eat its chef's food -- which is something judges are required to do before voting on a chef or a restaurant.

 

Monis is pretty tight-lipped. I don't know what his next plans are.

Have you encountered snobby servers? How do you dealing with them? There is one restaurant (which you fawn over constantly) where I need to go for business quite regularly, and there are a couple of servers there that are just Too Cool for School and treat my parties (usually just two or three people) like we are beneath them. I often am dining with out-of-town middle management types and I notice how they behave towards us, and then light up if the table next to us has Pretty People. The one time I dined there with my husband, we are treated remarkably differently, also. I really resent this, particularly because I am on business and not getting hospitable service reflects poorly on me. But, I can't for the life of me figure out how to complain about it without sounding callow. My preference would be to go somewhere else, but I'm usually not the one making reservations and the place has the marquee attraction that causes a lot of clients and associates to request it when they come to town. I'm certainly not going to use my money there anymore, but what would you do about something that isn't that easy to quantify or articulate. It would be weird to say to a manager, "I come here about once a week and I think that Server X and Server Y think they are better than my guests because they are wearing suits from Sears."

How's this:

 

"You know, I like the food here and so do my business guests, but I seem to be getting lesser attention from a couple of servers. Could you make sure my party is assigned to (insert names of better servers here) next time? I'd be grateful."

Don't forget to mention Cochon is home to the freshly awarded James Beard Award winning chef, Stephen Stryjewski (Best Chef: South). Man, that guy can cook -- amazing what one can do with pig!

I was pleased to add that detail to my round-up yesterday.

Your line of reasoning for tipping on carryout applies equally to a place like McDonalds, Starbucks, or Popeye's, too. Do you tip at these places? I may tip a few dollars on carryout if it is primarily a sit-down restaurant, not a carryout establishment.

I periodically tip $5 to my favorite baristas at Starbucks and guess who gets his double espresso quickly even when there's a long line of java junkies in front of him? Definitely worth the outlay. 

Grew up in Jacksonville and grew up with my dad taking me to the Columbia restaurant in St. Augustine (he grew up with his dad taking him to the Ybor City location). Also, when you get down there, ask around for recommendations for seafood places. There are so many hole in the wall places and the fish is basically served right out of the ocean. I miss fresh seafood now that I live in Iowa.

Thanks for chiming in.

I was a day late in calling Komi to make dinner reservations for our anniversary. Had meant to call 30 days out, but something came up and I didn't call until 29 days out..so, they were booked as I suspected. However, the woman who took my call and put me on the waitlist could not have been nicer. She was very professional and very nice - offering to put us on a wait list for Friday night too. We most likely will not get in this time -- but I was impressed by how nice she was when she could have been all attitudey and snobby.

One of the many reasons Komi merits a four-star rating from this publication: superior service.

I wouldn't dream of not leaving a couple of bucks for a take-out order! Who are these cheap people? If you can afford to get take-out, you can leave a crummy $2 tip for the kitchen and staff. Sheesh.

You and I agree.

A few weeks ago my husband and I ate here with another couple. We arrived first, checked in for a reservation under the other couple's name and were told no such reservation existed. We waited for the other couple, they were told the same thing although they had made the reservation by phone weeks prior. After some prodding, the hostess admitted it was possible the reservation was never recorded and we were seated on a busy Saturday night. Food was just okay, service was just okay, but the "lost" reservation and the defensiveness of the hostess will leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Oh dear. Sorry to hear that. You know there's been a chef change recently, too, right? Jon Mathieson, late of Inox, recently replaced opening chef Levi Mezick. 

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. See you here next week.

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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.

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 moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. His new video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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