Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, comments, rants and raves.

Jun 13, 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 really enjoy your work and have depended on you as the source for DC dining. I don't mean to be facetious, but do you think after a period of time covering a city, there is an appropriate time for new blood to take over? I know, I know.. DC has a burgeoning and ever-changing dining scene. But I look at the NYT, where it seems like there are term limits on restaurant critics. Curious about your thoughts. Thanks.

Interesting question -- and one I've asked myself before.  The day I get bored with this eating and scribbling job is the day I hand in my resignation. However, Washington continues to fascinate me as a restaurant critic, and I sure hope that shows in my work.

 

Just fyi: None of the last four or five food critics at the NYT left because of  "terms limits," which, as far as I know, don't exist for writers there. Sam Sifton was promoted to National editor. Frank Bruni left for the Times Magazine, then the prestigious Op-Ed page. Ruth famously left to edit Gourmet. Bryan Miller, her predecessor, had the column for an amazing nine-year run.

 

A number of critics have retained their positions for longer than I have, including my former editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Bauer. And let's not forget Gael Greene in New York.

 

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

Hi Tom, my wife and I are moving back to DC after being in Japan for the past 2 years. If you had been overseas for a prolonged period and coming back to DC, where would YOU be most excited to have a meal? No budget limitations. We've enjoyed living vicariously through you and your chats/reviews/dining guides from halfway across the world! Thanks!

Funny. I get some variation on your question a dozen times a week. Lots of comers and goers writing in! But I like it, I like it.  Thank you for following me.

 

Assuming you've had your fill of superb sushi, ramen, tempura and such, I'd be inclined to point you to Ethiopic on H St. NE for some fiery kitfo or excellent vegetarian stews and salads;  Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan for American cooking as executed by a French talent;  Haven Pizzeria in (close-in) Bethesda for terrific white clam pizza and fresh gelato;  Rasika West End for some modern Indian fare; and Fiola in Penn Quarter for stylish Italian. 

 

News flashlette:  Fiola is expected to announce a new pastry chef any moment now. Tom Wellings, who comes from the kitchen at Equinox downtown, is replacing Jason Gehring.

 

Wellings has an impressive resume, having worked at Restaurant Eve, Trio in Chicago, Clio in Boston, WD-50 in New York and two of  Fiola chef Fabio Trabocchi's earlier establishments, Maestro in Tysons Corner and Fiamma in the Big Apple.

 

I hate walking into restaurants or getting to the table and smelling cleaning smells, like bleach or strong lysol. I suppose I should be glad they're cleaning the place, but it really puts me off my food to smell toilet bowl cleaner when I want to be smelling baking bread.

I'm with you. Whatever happened to hot soap and water? And enough already with the Ajax-spritzers at the table next to mine. Ammonia and curry do not mix!

Hi Tom - My fiance and I are getting married at the DC Courthouse and are looking for somewhere to have lunch afterward. We'll have a group of about 15 people with diverging tastes, so something that appeals to a wide range of people would be great. Also, we don't mind spending some money, but would rather not break the bank. Something within walking distance of the courthouse would be ideal. Any suggestions? Thank you!

The nearby 701 has everything you're looking for: a mix of dishes (burger, rainbow trout, vegetarian pasta); an entree average of $22; and a supper clubby setting that calls for a glass of bubbly. Congrats.

Posting early because I will miss the chat. My bro-in-law will be in town next week and wants a crab cake. Any recommendations from you and the chatters in DC or near-in MD? (Don't want to go all the way to the shore.) Thanks.

Crab cakes are as easy to find here as tourists. The best in recent memory, though, is the tall role model at the southern-themed Vidalia downtown, perched on a ham-dotted sauce of mustard butter with a pinch of dark greens.  Made with sweet jumbo lump crab, it goes for $16 as a (rich) starter at lunch.

Tom, I love your postcards, chats, and reviews, but I have THE hardest time searching anything using the WaPo search function or on your page. Is there a way to find a list of postcards? I'd love to browse through. Ideally I'd love to type something into the search function and actually get an accurate result and not a bunch of recent unrelated articles. (I'm specifically looking for San Francisco and Portland recommendations, but when I type "Tom Sietsema Postcard Portland" into the search function I get nothing close to what I want). Thanks!

My most recent Travel pieces can be found here.

 

Older "Postcard from Tom" columns, to dozens of cities, are located here.

 

Hi Tom! Here's an etiquette question for you... when a waiter or bartender gives you a glass (or two) of wine 'on the house,' should you increase their tip to include what you would have paid for the wine, or just stick with the standard 20% with a thank you and a smile?

Depending on the wine and the amount, I'd add extra to the tip.

Been trying for several weeks - any suggestions for places in Barcelona, at any price level?

I last ate in Barcelona eight years ago, but I have fond recollections of  a grand seafood restaurant called Rias de Galicia and the tiny vendor Pinotxo in the famous Boqueria food market.

 

P.S. If a question doesn't get addressed, sometimes it's because I don't have a ready answer, my info isn't current (true in this case) or the question gets asked a zillion times and I'm looking for variety. 

What is your take on bringing a toddler to an upscale dining establishment for brunch on Father's Day? It is Father's Day, after all.

Paging Todd Kliman! Paging Todd Kliman!

 

I'm fine with kids in restaurants -- actually, I love seeing families eating together --  as long as the little ones behave and as long as their charges take responsibilty for any disruptive behavior (screaming, flinging Cherrios, throwing up). 

 

I know this is opening up a *huge* can of worms.

I will never get tired of hearing "My pleasure" delivered sincerely.

Nor will I  -- well, unless I'm at one of those hotels where the operator is trained to say "It's my pleasure to connect you."  Hear that a couple of times and you want to avoid phone assistance altogether.

My husband and I live in NOVA, and would like to head into DC next week to dine at Little Serow (on a weekday.) Are there better days/time than others, with regards to wait times? How long can a party of 2 expect to wait on a weekday evening? Thanks!

 Little Serow is small, fewer than 30 seats, so the restaurant fills up quickly at opening time.  Consequently, most diners can expect to wait.

 

Tuesday through Thursday, the wait tends to be shorter than on Saturday, when a line forms up outside the place as early as an hour before doors open, insiders report.

 

To minimize a wait, show up early to get in at 5:30 or after 9 p.m. Little Serow does not stop seating before its posted closing time, by the way.

 

If you show up in the middle of service, count on a wait. Lots of regulars leave their name and contact number on a list and head to a nearby bar or restaurant for a drink or a snack while they bide their time for a text message and a table.

Tom--I appreciate that you give some thought to whether you should continue in your job. However, I wish you'd broaden your criteria for that consideration beyond YOUR boredom threshold. I like your writing, but I do worry that because you are increasingly recognized and your familiarity with the players in the market (which perhaps influences your views), WP shoud consider imposing term limits for dining critics.

You are right: While I try to eat under the radar, it's not easy. But that just makes me work harder to keep a distance from the people I cover. I don't socialize with any chefs or restaurateurs, for instance, nor do I attend events where I might encounter them. And you know what? Just because I might know someone doesn't guarantee them any special coverage. If you can find evidence of favoriticism, bring it on. I welcome the challenge. Anonymity is nice, but it's not essential. More important is knowing what you're writing about, being fair and presenting your findings in entertaining ways.

Hi Tom, My BF took me out to a nice, well-regarded restaurant last night for dinner (not in the DC area - we live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland). We have eaten there before, and it is always good. However, last night we decided to split an entree. When the bill arrived, there was a $6 charge to split an $18 entree. Apparently, the fact that there would be a charge was on the menu, in fine print, but we didn't see it at the time, nor did our server mention it. My question is, should the server advise us of the charge when we say we want to split the entree? One- third of the cost of the entree seems steep. The server referred us to a manager, who pointed out the generic language about it on the menu (It didn't list the amount.). The manager apologized, but told us we got "a slightly bigger portion, with more vegetables," since we were splitting it. BF pointed out that we didn't ask for more, as one dish would have been too much for one person to eat. The manager told us he couldn't do anything about the charge ($6 seems pricey for vegetables!). We didn't make a fuss over it, not wanting to spoil a celebration. What is your take, and maybe that of the chatters? Thanks.

 I think the problem could have been avoided if:

 

1) The split charge and cost were better flagged on the printed menu.

 

2) The server had pointed out the charge when you ordered.

 

3) You had asked the question. (Split charges are common restaurant practice.)

 

Thoughts from the chatters and the industry, please?

 

Any updates on how Rogue 24 is doing? Is it worth the trip?

I thought it was.  (I think it depends on your expectations.)

Tom- Have you been there lately? Last review was in '03. Thoughts? What about their brunch?

Haven't been there in the past several years. Chatters?

Some restaurants decline over time just because they get complacent or change staff, so the experience simply isn't as good as it used to be. But sometimes it seems that a restaurant falls out of your favor precisely because it IS the same as it was before, and you now consider the style - whether of the decor or the food - to be dated, or you find yourself bored with the same menu you've seen before. I understand that, but I'd just like you to keep in mind that many of us don't dine out very frequently, so that innovation and change isn't a priority. Thanks!

Thanks for the feedback. Can you offer an example or two of what you're talking about, please?

 

I don't think my concern is restaurants staying the same so much as restaurants resting on their laurels or actually regressing.  Restaurants that don't refresh themselves now and then are aiming for trouble. Show me a kitchen that never deviates from what it's always done and I'll show you a bored cook or two. Bored staff = mistakes.

I love eating at fine dining/upscale restaurants, but I don't bring my kids with me. I want to enjoy the dining experience without worrying about if my kids will eat the food or make a fuss and ruining other people's dining experience.

I hear you (and how thoughtful). Not everyone has that option, however, particularly on holidays.

I went into mourning when the great Phyllis Richman retired, and I don't want to have to do that again with Tom.

Mwah!

In my family, the second that a child started acting in a way that would distract us or, more importantly, annoy other people, an adult took the child outside until calm prevailed. Pretty soon, the negative enforcement led to impeccable restaurant behavior, as no child likes being taking away from the fun. I urge other parents to use this approach.

Wise parent. Smart strategy.

Hi Tom, my husband and I will be staying at the Marriott Metro Center for 2 nights. We're celebrating our anniversary. We'd like to go to Rasika but it's fully booked since 2 weeks ago. Any suggestions? The restaurant doesn't need to be super fancy. Thanks.

Among the festive alternatives nearby are Central Michel, the wine-themed Proof, the Mexican-accented Oyamel, Tosca for high-end Italian and Zaytinya for Middle Eastern small plates.

Hi Tom! I just moved back to DC after being away for two years. I'm psyched to be back - I love this city! I am currently living in Capitol Hill (SE) and have started exploring the neighborhood. What are your favorite spots in the area? I know Belga and Good Stuff Eatery well, but other than those, I feel clueless! Also, any new, out-of-this-world restaurants that I have to visit asap (located anywhere in DC)? Thank you - so happy to be back to reading your chats every Wednesday!

Welcome back.  Sorry to say, Capitol Hill is not my favorite dining destination. Places including Seventh Hill Pizza, Bis, Art & Soul and Montmartre make the neighborhood more attractive for food fans, however.

 

As for "out-of-this-world" experiences, are we talking just really wonderful eating? A number of restaurants fit that description: Minibar, Rasika, Blue Duck Tavern, Thai X-ing  ... I could go on and on.

Tom, Herein lies the rub. Sometimes (too often) parents of misbehaving toddler-diners ignore their kids' bad behavior. That, and not the bad behavior itself, is what really steams my clams. Your kid's savagery is ruining my meal and you're acting like nothing's wrong. Argh!

I've witnessed that as well!

Hi Tom. Next month, I will be reuniting with a special friend who will be coming from overseas. Where can we go (NW DC or Arlington) that is both romantic and quiet? No sushi or Ethiopian please. Thank you!

Eventide in Arlington fits the bill.  In Washington, try for Marcel's, 1789 or New Heights.

Husband and I are leaving our 3 month old with a babysitter for the first time tonight to catch a movie in Bethesda. We rarely venture over there (we're in Silver Spring), and we'd love to grab dinner before. Any suggestions for a first post-baby date night dinner?

Hey, you do this for a living. I trust that you can be impartial even if recognized, and no doubt you are also quite capable of noting whether other nearby parties are getting the same level of service as your table. Heck, I notice that, and I only dine out about once a month! :-)

Thanks.

 

I think it helps that I visit restaurants multiple times for star-rated reviews in the Magazine.  Someone might recognize me one meal, but not another. You'd be surprised.

Please, if possible, don't send vegetarians to a place where the idea of a veggie option is pasta with tomato sauce. We get that so often. It shows such a lack of inspiration and care from a chef. How about Poste - such a pleasing set of choices.

I threw that out as one example. I know the kitchen at 701 is capable of a more imaginative non-meat offering.  Having eaten at Poste since it acquired a new chef, I can't heartily recommend the restaurant.

I have been told that it is impossible to find Fesinjook (spelled phonetically) - a traditional Iranian food - in the DC area. Please tell me it can be had in a restaurant (will travel!). We would like to surprise a very wonderful person with this dish. Many thanks to you and the chatters!

Do you mean fesenjan? I had the pomegrante-flavored stew not long ago at Sabzi in Fairfax.

No, but it does guarantee that you will get special service, extra-careful attention paid to food preparation, etc. etc., that the rest of us don't get. The special service and attention will inform your opinion of a restaurant and will, therefore, affect your coverage of it. What ends up happening is that when an ordinary person like me goes to Restaurant X that Tom raved about, I have a less-than-stellar experience and wonder, "Is it me? Is it them? Or was it Tom?" Sorry, Tom, I love you, but you can be stubborn in this forum about the fact that restauranters fawn over you and keep your picture in their kitchens.

Which kitchens? I'm curious.

As for fawning -- it happens -- I don't take any of it seriously.  More than a few times, I've also sent friends to restaurants to gauge their treatment, portion sizes, etc., before writing a review. I do what I can, in other words.

P.S. The smart restaurants don't tell their staff  a critic is in the house.  Revealing that just makes everyone less comfortable.

My wife and I don't have kids. I don't really like them in a fine dining place, but at a brunch, certainly. My feeling is brunch is a more casual meal and children should be expected. Plus a good way to learn to behave in such places.

Good point.

Father of 3 little ones here, who loves taking them out to nice places to eat: Kids in "upscale" restaurants are ok as long as they behave and the parents take responsibility for them. Kids at Inn at Little Washington, Cintronelle, Komi, Marcels, etc. - NEVER ok.

Thanks for weighing in.

In a chat a few weeks ago, you said that at L'Auberge Provencal you "feel as if you're dining in 1999." That struck me as a strange criticism, as I had some fine meals in 1999.

I recall writing that (not referring to notes at the moment) based on a couple desserts that were fashionable back in the day but no longer so -- and not particulary distnguished to boot.

Don't leave!!

OK!

I always read this chat to keep up with whatever is new and hip, but I feel no need to go to these places. If I'm going to splurge on dinner, I'll go to L'Auberge Chez Francois, which is my absolute favorite restaurant. You've called it dated in the past, but I grew up in Belgium and I love the food and the service there because it reminds me of all the great meals I had in Belgium. I'm in my early 40s (so not quite over the hill). However, we all dine out for different reasons and I certainly appreciate that someone else wants something different for his or her dining experience. There's room for all.

Indeed there is.  Like you, by the way, I'm a fan of L'Auberge

My husband and I had reservations there to celebrate our anniversary, and after learning through your wise chats that Trummer's was between chef's, we almost cancelled. I am happy to report that I am so glad we did NOT cancel! We had their fixed price, 3-course Sunday menu and the items we chose were excellent. Their rock shrimp and citrus salad, coconut and yuca soup, oven roasted pork shoulder with bay leaf crumble, and scallops and grits. They were a touch weak on desserts, in my opinion. I didn't care for their banana mousse pie (too strong on the banana), and I had the artisanal cheese plate, which was too heavy for dessert. I am slapping myself for wimping out and not getting the popcorn ice cream; I'm sure I would have been happier with that course had I selected that since you enjoyed it so. My only issue was with the hostess (couldn't seat us on time for our 5:00 reservation, and then with only 3 parties in the entire restaurant, sat us directly next to another party, and the table location ended up having such strong sunlight that it required sunglasses for part of the meal). But the food was still excellent!!! I hope whatever permanent chef they select maintains the outstanding quality! Hope this helps anyone who is in doubt about keeping a reservation there.

Thanks for the field report. I'm thrilled to hear that about Trummer's, which, as you noted lost its top toque to Wit & Wisdom in Baltimore.

I appreciate your link to restaurants you name, but the link just puts us on a page to enter the information ourselves. Not much of a help, frankly. Can't the Post link directly to the restaurant information?

Producer here -- What restaurant link are you seeing that on? All those links should take you to the profile pages. There IS a search bar that loads at the top of the page (sometimes before the profile information fills in) but if you look below the search bar you should find the relevant restaurant details.

I was very sad to read of her progressive illness recently, although she seems to be bearing it with her customary cheerfulness. I don't suppose there's a chance we'll get another of her clever murder mysteries?

I broke bread with her a month or so ago and she was in fine form. Looks pretty much as she did when she retired in 2000 and remains a great dinner guest - and good eater! I think her days of mystery writing are behind her, but not other forms of entertaining us.

There are many great eating options in Barcelona. Favorites include Bar Mut, which combines an intimate. elegant bar scene with great cooking and wine selections (don't miss the secreto-seared acorn fed pork), Suquet del Amirail, which serves world class fish behind an unassuming facade in Barceloneta (and was where Jose Andres got his start), Casa Calvet, for an original Gaudi interior and some classy. but up to date Catalan cooking, and Bar Pinoxto in the Boqueria market, for a wild tapas scene (if it's too crowded, just walk around the Boqueria and become jealous of what may be the world's best food market.)

Just in time! Gracias.

Hi Tom: Just got back from Barcelona- can't miss El Quim in the Boqueria for the baby octopus and patatas bravas. Also try Cal Pep for pinxtos. Just have a seat and enjoy whatever they bring you!

And this.

Had a lovely lunch there last September. A bit surprised at the final tab-a liter of the house white wine was sixty dollars. Otherwise prices were quite reasonable.

Thanks for writing.

It's the germaphobia that's made every cleaning product "anti-bacterial" --with the backfiring effect of breeding superbugs. Very hot water will get most grease & dirt out without even soap -- plus, as you say, the smell. We quit going to a place we both loved because the toilet-bowl cakes overwhelmed the place -- from the second floor down!

Restaurateurs, have you smelled your restrooms lately?

Are you willing to share your thoughts on the dismissal of Brett Anderson amid the Times-Picayune's purge?

The news that the New Orleans newspaper is cutting back its print product and laying off hundreds of staff, including one of the most respected food writers in the business, is tragic.  Dismissing a restaurant critic from New Orleans is like cutting the White House reporter in Washington: short-sighted, to say the least. I'm pained for my friend.

Seems like even actress Mandy Moore beat you to dining at Seasonal Pantry for their supper club meals.

Uh, no.

 

And that's a wrap, gang. See you here again next week, I hope.

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.

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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