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

Jul 11, 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.

Why was Rays The Steaks and its offshoots not mentioned in your Sunday steakhouse round-up? I'd be interested to see how you think Ray's compares to its more expensive brethren.

Ray's the Steaks was not included in the steak round-up because my focus was on solely on DC meat markets (which I mentioned in the introduction) and because I recently updated Ray's in my spring dining guide.

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone.  Glad to be back in the captain's seat after a short hiatus (Fourth of July) and eager to take your questions and comments.

Tom, good Mexican food is impossible to come by in DC. It either comes with hipsters, frozen margarita koolaide concoctions or just bad food. Where can a girl get a decent, reasonably priced taco in this city? Or should I give up hope all together?

The tacos in DC that most remind me of the ones I tasted in Mexico City can be found at Oyamel in Penn Quarter. True,  the restaurant is fashion-forward, but it's margaritas are far removed from anything resembling Kool-Aid.

 

Chatters, where in the District do you go for your taco fixes?

Does Fiola still have a happy hour? I tried to go twice around 4pm last week after jury duty, but the restaurant wasn't open.

Just checked with a reservation-taker at the restaurant. She wasn't aware of Fiola being closed for any special reason last week and confirmed that happy hour lives on at the bar, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays.

Hi Tom, here's (probably) the easiest question you'll receive all day. How do you pronounce the name Rasika? For years I've been saying RAH-sih-kah, but I recently heard a friend pronounce it as rah-SEE-kah, and now I think that I may have been saying it wrong for years. What's the verdict? P.S. Keep up the great work! Now that I have a kid and don't get to go out to eat very often, I live vicariously through your reviews.

You're closer to correctly saying the word (which means "flavors" in Sanskrit) than your friend. RUH-see-ka is correct.

 

Thanks for the kind words!

Good morning, Tom. Any Charlottesville, VA restaurant recommendations? Thanks.

Funny you should ask. I'm going there -- for the first time, believe it or not  -- this weekend. High on my list are Ten, a sushi purveyor; Jinx for barbecue; and the Silver Thatch Inn.  I welcome additional suggestions from today's audience.

Tom: I know it's been discussed, but I was amazed at how casually dressed folks were at Grapeseed on a recent Saturday night. It's not the most expensive place in the area (or even in southern MoCo, for that matter) but my wife and I dropped $150 pretty easily for our anniversary dinner, and people were strolling in in cargo shorts and t-shirts to a place where entrees are around $30. Maybe this shouldn't shock me anymore? Maybe $30 is the new $15?

Was this a recent Saturday night when the daytime temperature soared into the triple digits? I can't say I blame diners for dressing down. At the same time, I understand how you feel, spending so much money for a special occasion only to find yourself in a room full of half-naked customers.  In general, people don't dress up as much anymore -- anywhere, I'm afraid.

Hi Tom. I'm in New Delhi for work for a week and wanted to ask you or the chatters if they have any suggestions for a restaurant I must visit while I'm here? I'll be sick of eating in my hotel soon so I'd like to venture out somewhere really nice. Thanks!

Delhi! One of the best adventures of my life. One of the more novel restaurants there is Indian Accent, which I wrote about for a recent Postcard from Tom column in Travel.  For kabobs, you can't beat a hotel restaurant called Bukhara. Chatters, feel free to weigh in with your suggestions as well.

Prompted by your item about a new chef at Tallula, I dined there over the weekend. As someone who went there several times a year, I was greatly disappointed. While the menu looked enticing, execution fell short. The salad came drenched in dressing and the fried green tomatoes sutffed with blue cheese were tasteless. As for entrees, the pork was so salty as to be inedible (although the sides were good), and my pasta with soft shell crab in a lemon balm butter was also bland (and a bit gluey). Our server never showed up until we were finished even though we had asked another staffer to send her over because of the porkchop. She said she never got the message, which I believe, but she never checked in with us after the food arrived either. A manager came over about 10 minutes later to inquire and apologize. Way too late in my opinion. Over the years I've always enjoyed Tallulah but I have no interest in returning.

I'd give the new chef, Nate Waugaman, time to settle in.  As I mentioned online, not all his ideas are yet in place.  I admired his cooking at Addie's in Rockville a lot.

Hi- I finally got reservations to Bandolera and was so excited to try the food there. When we arrived at the restaurant, we noted it was quite warm but the hostess assured us it was only because we were near the door and would be cooler further into the restaurant. however, after only sampling a few of the tapas, we were forced to leave as the heat was unbearable, and one of the members of my party is pregnant with twins. The waiter fessed up that the AC was broken. What is the obligation of the hostess to notify us of this problem before being seated. Had we known, we would have rescheduled for another time.

When there are mechanical (or other) issues that are likely to cause problems for diners, whoever greets and seats them is responsible for providing customers with the reality. Better yet, Bandolero should have posted a sign addressing its cooling issue on the door.

Um.. Tom... when you call, they answer the phone, "Rah-SEE-kah." Are you sure it's not pronounced that way?! We were just there last week, and every staff person we talked to (hostess, waitress) pronounced it with an emphasis on the second syllable! (We were paying attention because we also wanted to pronounce it correctly!)

Ha! The receptionist I talked to two minutes ago confirmed the aforementioned pronunciation -- and admitted even she mispronounces the name of the restaurant.

Tom - posting late, but praying you'll take my question. My husband and I are headed on our first real date since our son was born, and we'd like to try a new restaurant. We're looking at a moderately priced meal - nothing that will break the bank. The only no-no is Indian - my husband's not a fan. Any suggestions? Thank you!

You don't say where you're looking or how old your son is, but among this year's fresh faces, the following are all choice and moderately priced: Little Serow (zesty Thai in Dupont Circle), Evening Star Cafe (American with a southern bent in Alexandria), Boqueria (Spanish tapas in Dupont Circle), La Forchetta (Italian near American University), Bistro Vivant (French in McLean) and Haven Pizza in Bethesda.  Good luck!

I hope you can help me with this. Last night my cousin told me that she's coming to town this weekend and wanted to have dinner with me. She was in town previously and while I think she has a good sense of food, she was raving via social media about her meals at Kinkead's and Founding Farmers. I won't say she didn't have decent meals there, but I thought there were more unique experiences in D.C. As it is too late for me to try to get in to Rasika, Estadio, etc. do you have any recommendations where I can take her that may not be booked already?

If "social media" is raving about Founding Farmers, I have a serious problem with the source.  It's a gawdawful restaurant (except for drinks).

 

For a *good* taste of Washington, I'd recommend Ethiopic on H St. NE, Palena Cafe in Cleveland Park, the Bombay Club downtown or Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan.

Were you in the dark, or out grilling?

I was judging an apple pie contest on the top floor of the State Department, which is where I got to view the fireworks ("Better than the Truman balcony!" I heard another guest say) and see Bill and Hill -- last-minute surprise attendees. Those two are rock stars.

I find there is a tendency of Americans to assume any foreign word or name is accented on the second syllable (hence the "rah-SEE-kah" assumption), and accents on the first syllable tend to throw them.

And while we're on the subject, that hot little Thai newcomer in Dupont Circle rhymes with "sparrow."

If you really want great tacos - get a journalist to take you to The Reliable Source restaurant at the National Press Club on Friday. Tacos are free if you buy a $5 drink. Be prepared to make your own tacos from infinite number of fixings. (There goes Washington''s best kept secret!)

"Free" tacos make me suspicious --- like "cheap" sushi, I don't trust the notion -- but I'm sharing this info for those who might be curious.

I'm headed to the moon next week but I don't know where to eat. Any recommendations? Thanks!

There's a gem of a place called the Crater Cafe that I thought was pretty good. Great cheese board. But the prices! I'll be including a review of the restaurant in a forthcoming Postcard from the Moon.

New Yorkers in DC constantly whining about pizza or Californians in DC constantly whining about Mexican food?

Or Minnesotans in DC constantly whining about the lack of good hot dish?

On a recent trip to California, I was reminded of a practice I found to be fairly ubiquitous in Seattle - if there was a wait for a table, the host/ess asked if we would like to leave a cell phone number, and they would call us when a table was ready (or about to be ready). I really appreciated this practice - when we took advantage of it, it gave us an opportunity to walk around the area, stop in another bar for a drink and to check it out for future dining, etc. Can we start asking restaurants here to do so? I'm looking at you, Two Amys! Also, I don't know if you've heard about a new-ish pizza place in Brookland - Menomale. I went there this weekend and enjoyed it quite a lot.

I like the practice you mention, which is one employed here in DC by Little Serow, by the way.

 

Menomale? News to me. Thanks for the tip.

Tom, I'm assuming the DC original Founding Farmers is the one you don't like. My husband & I have had a number of delicious meals--both breakfast and dinner--at the Potomac Founding Farmers. At $10, the tomato soup & grilled cheese sandwich w/homemade chips is both delicious and a bargain.

Glad to hear that. And yes, I was speaking only about the original.

I'm looking to take someone special out of the metro area but within a few hours' drive overnight to celebrate a birthday somewhere special. Already been to Inn at Little Washington and looking for somewhere else along the same lines. My research has pointed me to the restaurants at Goodstone Inn (Middleburg, VA) or Ashby Inn (Paris, VA). Which would you pick among the two, or do you have an alternative to suggest? Thanks for sharing your expertise!

I included the Ashby Inn in Paris in my most recent fall guide for a reason: It's lovely.  Goodstone Inn is more a treat for the eye than the tongue, and it's priced as if it were a two-Michelin star restaurant.

Dear Tom, Please let me give some positive feedback aout Mintwood Place. When I dined there last night, I asked the waitress what has become my standard question, "What drinks do you have without alcohol?" Without batting an eyelash, she responded, "It would be my pleasure to make you whatever you would like. What sort of flavors do you enjoy?" Tom, I was floored. Whenever I before have asked this question, the waiter usually looks at me if I were an alien, stammers that non-alcoholic drinks are not available, or provides me with a choice of Diet Coke or Coke. At Mintwood, I was given a delicious cocktail that snapped of ginger and tasted as interesting as if it contained alcohol. And I was treated as respectfully as any wine or beer drinking guest. Others should know of Mintwood Place's grace in handling my request. Thank you.

Happy to pass along your gratitude. A number of restaurants are good about offering interesting non-alcoholic beverages. At Rasika West End recently, I had an amazingly refreshing glass of fresh grape juice.  (Not really a mocktail, I realize, but I appreciate the effort.)

My husband and I went to Marcel's last year for the pre-theater menu based on your recommendation. It was one of the best dining experiences of my life. Everything was wonderful. The food was fantastic, the service was superb, and I walked away feeling like the money we spent was worth it. We went back last weekend for the same experience. They cut down the pre-theater menu and it is now different. You only get two courses and then a dessert course. The portions are much smaller. The service was okay but not at the level one would expect from such an establishment. The food was mediocre. The duck leg was overly salty and had no other taste. The stead tartare was pretty good as was the salmon, but nothing we ate was even close to the excellent food we got last year. The extras they give you, such as free macaroons and extra appetizers were very small and not that great. The bread was lukewarm and they didn't really want to give us more than one piece each. Tom, when was the last time you visited Marcel's? I was so disappointed and it was a complete waste for us. It was a splurge and I wished we saved it for somewhere else. I will say the car service and valet were excellent still, but that's about it.

Sorry to hear that. I was last at Marcel's about a year ago. In the restaurant's defense, however, "two courses and then a dessert" is still three courses, right?

 

Over-salted food has become a real problem of late. Blacksalt, I'm afraid, lives up to its name these days. Boundary Road tastes as if Morton's were an investor. And the new Green Pig Bistro, which I so admired when it opened, has become a deer lick.

I wonder whether that "recent" Saturday night was the one when nearly everyone in Bethesda was without power! _Everyone_ looked more casual than usual -- lots of t-shirts, shorts, and ponytails because we were all sweltering and couldn't do laundry, blow-dry our hair, or perhaps even shower (depending on your type of hot-water heater and plumbing arrangements). That said, I LIKE the increasingly relaxed standards. My boyfriend and I are just casual types (within reason -- we're tidy enough, nothing crass or distracting -- and, of course, when we go to the places that are clearly on another tier, we do what we have to do to fit in). Also, we often walk to dinner -- which is about a mile each way and sometimes hot, so it would be tougher in eveningwear -- but we like food and wine, and our money spends just as well. We eat out a lot, and probably wouldn't do so nearly as much if we had to get dressed up just to satisfy our fellow diners.

Fair point: I think restaurants would prefer a full dining room of casually dressed customers to a half-filled space occupied by men in jackets and women in dresses.  But I do think the way one dresses says something about the person and how much he/she regards where they're going and who they're sharing space with.

Do you have any recommendations for Ethiopian in Montgomery County? We need space for about 10 ppl or so to discuss our book club's last read: yes chef. Ps. The submit a question section is not working properly on Ipad today.

Did you catch my recent preview of LacoMelza in Silver Spring?  Very appealing space and cooking.

The Todd Thrasher bars (Eve, Px) also love to try out new alcohol-free drinks upon request.

YES!

For great tacos, try District Taco in Arlington! Their breakfast tacos with chorizo and the fish tacos are amazing, as is pretty much anything else on the menu. I sympathize with the warm chatter at Bandolero. We had the same issue a few weeks ago. It was steamy inside and out, so unbearable, and no one ever mentioned that there was a problem with AC! By the way, the food was good but not great. I wasn't that impressed.

Other chatters are singing the praises of Santa Fe Cafe in Arlington, Super Taco in Adams Morgan, Mi Rancho in Silver Spring, R & R Taqueria in Elkridge and La Sandia in Tysons Corner ...

Hi Tom, A few Charlottesville restaurant suggestions: A gem that always seems to be overlooked by the big city reviewers but a favorite among locals; doesn't take reservations, go early to avoid a long wait, business casual. Duner’s Restaurant Ivy, VA http://www.dunersrestaurant.com/index.htm Best breakfast in town, go early to avoid lines or sit at counter: Bluegrass Grill and Bakery 313 Second St, SE, Charlottesville, VA, 22902 LocationAt E South St Sunday: 8:30 – 2:30 Bakery: Albemarle Baking Co Aromas - Moroccan inspired cafe in Barracks Rd shopping center Fine dining: Fossetts restaurant in Keswick Hall--fabulous food and a view! Enjoy--Cville is a great food town!

You are a wealth of tips (and making me reconsider my strategy)! Thanks.

Tom, We have a soon-to-be Arlingtonian coming to town to house hunt. We've tasked ourselves with taking the househunter out for a spectacular dinner in Arlington to showcase their new hometown. We've done Willow and Tallulah and wanted to try something a little different since we don't get out ourselves too often. Eventide? Green Pig Bistro? Something else? Many thanks.

Right now, I'd be inclined to introduce the house hunters to Me Jana for Lebanese, Ray's the Steaks for the obvious or Eventide, which I returned to for my last spring dining guide.

Tom, Based on your review, my wife and I went out to Trummer's on Main last night for our anniversary dinner. Needless to say, the experience was true to your review - Clifton is a quaint and lovely town that feels MILES away from the bustle of city and suburban life, Trummer's atmosphere is welcoming and sophisticated, and the food is fantastic. With that said, one of the most appealing aspects of our meal was that Trummer's let the flavors of indiviual ingredients stand out distinctly - the "beefiness" of beef hitting one part of your palate while the earthy "beaniness" of cranberry and cannellini beans hit another part of your tongue, for example. While I love restaurants that take ingredients and blend them all together for a unique singular flavor, I must say the fact I could taste distinct secondary and tertiary ingredients at Trummer's was both refreshing and outstanding! Thanks again to your review!

I'm pleased to hear how much you like the restaurant, given Trummer's recent (and obvious seamless) chef change.

Haven't been but have been hearing raves about a restaurant in Chilhowie, VA, Town House Restaurant. If I'm remembering correctly, it was recently written up in a national magazine. It's in SW VA, off I-81, more of a weekend destination than just a night's drive. http://www.townhouseva.com/

I agree with the Bethesda poster. We also routinely walk to dinner in Bethesda, and while I am happy to put on a summer dress, it's harder for my husband. Who wants to walk 20 minutes each way wearing long pants in the DC heat and humidity? We also would not go out as much if we (particularly HE) had to dress up. And driving is not an alternative -- there is no way I would ever eat out in Bethesda if I had to find parking. Not to mention that the walking is nice to offset the meal calories!

More good points. (I like the walking-for-health and parking-in-Bethesda-is-a-drag explanations.)

Tom, Other restaurants to visit are Brookeville, Duner's, Mas, and The Clifton Inn. Enjoy... a great dining destination! PS: Don't miss picking up some wine, cheese, or charcuterie at Feast!

My weekend just got busier. Thanks.

Tom- Please consider going to BBQ Exchange in Gordonsville for bbq instead, http://bbqex.com/. It is fantastic and the hush puppies are cooked to order.

So I hear!

I'm OK with casual wear, but really, if your legs and/or chest are hairy, please cover up. Wife-beaters are just NOT appropriate for any dining room, yours or a restaurant's.

And no baseball caps for any male over 13!

Tom: One thing that was you telling us if you ever been to that perfect confluence of meat, side, wine, etc. If so, where was it?

Locally, the restaurants that come closest to the ideal are Bourbon Steak, J & G Steakhouse and the more modest  Ray's the Steaks.

I have no problem with people wearing shorts and Tees during the power shortage and 104+ degree temperature, but I do have a problem with young people who can afford / or don't mind running credit card bills that will take years to pay out, who show up in fine dining places dressed way too casually. They are disrespectful not only to themselves and other diners for whom a meal in such place may be a rare opportunity for a special experience, but they are t also disrespectful to the chef, and all other people, including the busboy, who work very hard to make this particular restaurant a place of fine dining.

Hey, in defense of "young people," I see a *lot* of  mature-looking diners who don't dress up for their meals away from home.  (Or really ought to consider wearing  Spanx, but that's grist for a fashion chat.)

 

I hear a distant lunch bell ringing, folks. Thanks for a lively hour. See you back here next week, same time.

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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