Ask Tom: Rants, raves and questions on the DC dining scene

Jul 18, 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 just heard that Citronelle is going to be closed for an extended period due to water damage. I was going to use them for a private party, but that is now out. If you were planning a private party for 40 people where would you look to next? This a group of people who know a good meal, and would prefer French or Modern American. Thanks!

It's true. Michel Richard Citronelle, housed in the Latham Hotel, will be dark for at least the next six months, according to representatives for both the four-star restaurant and the hotel.  Both businesses closed last Thursday.

 

"We look at this as a good thing -- the silver lining" to the unfortunate news, says Mel Davis, Citronelle's spokesperson. "We're hoping to get a nice little renovation" from the capital improvements to follow. 

 

The down time will give chef Michel Richard time to focus on his new projects, including restaurants in Atlantic City and a forthcoming cookbook featuring recipes from the Frenchman's Central restaurant downtown.

 

As for where French food lovers might flock in the meantime, Marcel's in the West End is probably the starriest alternative. 

 

Good morning, everyone. Lots to chew over today. For starters, Matt Molaski, the GM at Tallula in Arlington, wants to reach out to the diner who weighed in with some problems there in last week's chat:

 

"We'd like to start by simply apologizing to the guest for the experience that they had with us.  The introduction of a new chef to a restaurant is no easy feat and very rarely do all of the pieces fall into place immediately.  There are near constant updates to the menu that kitchen crew must master and the the service team must understand. At the end of the day, Chef Waugaman and I consider it our personal responsibility to ensure that the guest has a great experience and feels well taken care of.  It's difficult to address the guests' specific comments about the dishes they tasted due to the time that has passed, but it sounds as though we did a poor job of talking to the guest and responding to the issues. We should have addressed their needs quickly and successfully while they were dining.

I'm thrilled to be working with Nate Waugaman and am very excited about the menu that he's introducing in both Tallula and Eatbar. I honestly feel that Tallula now stands to provide the best dining experiences I've seen since joining this team years ago. I would like to invite these diners to return to Tallula as my guests. I'm sure that they'll have a terrific dinner when they do. "

Another restaurant owner who lost power during the recent storms asked that I post this on today's chat:

"With the recent power outages experienced in the DC area, I wonder if you would please ask your restaurateur readership how they handled not being able to serve guests, having to close due to the lack of electricity.  Did any make reparations for guests that had reservations?  Do patrons expect something for free from an establishment when the closure is unexpected and outside the control of the restaurant?"

Let's rock and roll.

We went to Zaytinya last night and, as usual, really ourselves. I hadn't been in a few years and was suprised that we still had a 30 minute wait for a table for two - on a Tuesday evening in the middle of the summer, nine years after the restaurant opened. Can you think of another DC restaurant that has remained so popular for so long? And why can't other places do it?

The success of the Middle Eastern small plates restaurant is indeed impressive. Part of what keeps the place hopping is the consistency of the cooking. But Zaytinya doesn't rest on its laurels; the kitchen keeps coming up with new dishes that keep its many fans coming back. 

 

There are a few other establishments that remain popular and packed years after their debuts, not all of them as rave-worthy. I'm thinking now of Lauriol Plaza and Old Ebbitt Grill.

Received a call late last night from a niece touring colleges in the area. She is staying in a hotel in Bethesda and wants to get together for dinner tonight. She requested Indian. I know you have recommended Spice Xing in Rockville and Passage to India in Bethesda, but those reviews are OLD. I also see the Going Out GURUs have tapped Tandoori Nights in Bethesda for a vegetarian dish. Where would you go? (if she ends up here in 2013, then we will book for Rasika.)

I'm a big fan of the newish Jewel of India in Silver Spring. Be sure to try the masala calamari, stinging lamb vindaloo and, from the Indo-Chinese part of the menu, the spicy Chicken 65.

have you tried "the Pig" on Fourteenth St? I suggested they might want to serve bread with their BBQ pork and they acted like they'd never thought of that.

I haven't visited the porky restaurant, but my Weekend colleague, Justin Rude, checked out for a recent Lunch Break column.

Hi Tom, I’d never given thought to tipping for carryout orders until you mentioned it in a discussion and I’ve been thinking about it since. I used to work in the industry as a pastry cook/chef in the back-of-the-house. Granted they were fine dining restaurants so I assume that there were not many, if any, savory take-out orders but when guests would order desserts to go, I was the one who packaged them and obviously wasn’t processing the check and collecting any tip for my effort. As far as I know, no servers ever shared tips with the back-of-the-house staff, i.e. cooks, chefs. So I’m wondering, with respect to take-out orders, who generally packages them up? I suppose I’m looking for some insight from people who work in restaurants. Every time I’ve gotten take-out and been there before it was sitting and waiting, or seen it packaged in an open kitchen, it came directly from the kitchen or was packaged up by the cooks. I’m curious if it is common practice for servers to actually “plate” and package up the food into the containers or if they just put the containers in a bag and add plasticware/napkins, which I personally don’t consider the brunt of the effort. I would be willing to bet that any tip given on a take-out order is going to the person/server who rings up the check, not to, or shared with, the back-of-the-house staff who may have contributed effort too. Hence why I’m not as liable to give a tip on a carry-out order as I assume that the back-of-the-house staff is plating it up and I’m pretty confident they won’t be seeing that tip. But I will disclose that I have a small back-of-the-house chip on my shoulder with respect to servers, given some of my experiences; front- and back-of-the-house are two different worlds. Thanks

I've seen waiters, bar tenders and hosts pack up to-go orders before -- hence my reply to the original tipping question -- but I welcome insight from industry insiders.

Hi Tom! My parents have graciously offered to take me out for my birthday--it's the one time that we, as a family, really try to do a nice dinner out in D.C. I'd like to do something relatively new to the dining scene at a mid range price point. I like all kinds of food, but my parents are a little more conservative. Some places we've enjoyed in the past include Proof, Cork, Volt, and Veranda. Thank so much for your help!

Among the new crop of dining rooms, you should consider Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan for American cooking with Gallic flair (entrees $16 to $27);  Boqueria near Dupont Circle for Spanish tapas ($5 to $18) and terrific cocktails; and the soon-to-be-renamed Italian restaurant from Roberto Donna, La Forchetta (entrees $15 to $20) near American University.

I'll start by thanking you for SO many times telling people who have an issue "did you ask for a manager?" Had 1PM reservations on Sunday for 4, which were made 4 weeks in advance, and was told all must be present to sit, table gets given away at 1:15 if all not there. Fine. Get your rules. At 1:10 we're told to take a pager and that the table is being cleared. Lil walk through and noone is even close to done by where the VERY RUDE hostess was pointing. So ... at 1:20, famished and surely thirsty for the prixe fix brunch, I ask VERY RUDE hostess if we can start ordering drinks at the bar for the special. In her nastiest tone and look ever, she says "checks cannot be transferred" multiple times, all she would say with such a look on her face that she was being put out or something. AND I ask where is the table she spoke of, we looked and noone had a check. Oh - - she points to another table that is "getting up" apparently. Not happening. I tell her I am not looking to transfer any check, I was told my table would be given away if all were not here, it's now 30 minutes later and you're not honoring my reservation. Again NASTY. So, I stop, and ask for Manager. Voila! Fantastic manager comes over and I explain the issue while adding in that if she's the face of the restaurant they are in trouble and I'd never hire anyone that treated people so poorly .... and within moments we have a round of drinks. Then we have a table. Then we have some additional cocktail shots brought over and a wonderful server. So kudos to Jared for saving our brunch and a job well done. Thank you Tom for the constant reminder of asking for a manager. Ariel, you were a fabulous server. As for the hostess whose name I did not get, let's just hope you get what's coming to you. It's a tough economy, people would love to have your job ...

I love happy endings. Thanks for sharing your tale in such detail and for allowing me to restate the importance of diners addressing problems as they arise rather than waiting (often after it's too late for proper repairs).

 

Wonder if Ms. Nasty is still employed at Masa 14?

That's a little harsh, no? According to the WP website, you have given 389 restaurants in the area a rating of 2 stars or better. So you're really saying there are nearly 400 restaurants in the area better than Green Pig? I find that hard to believe, especially considering you seemed to like most of the stuff you tried, save for two dishes and a drink. I've been four times already and believe its definitely the best restaurant in North Arlington right now.

You are not the only one to criticize me for giving Green Pig Bistro -- which I really, really liked in the beginning -- a satisfactory/good rating.  I think Scot Harlan and Will Sullivan are fine chefs, but someone was making some major seasoning mistakes during three of my four visits.

 

Given the problems, which I think are easily correctable, I couldn't in good conscience give the bistro a two-star salute at this time.  That said, I think the restaurant does some dishes really well, and I applaud such novelties as the kung pao lamb sweetbreads.

Have you ever tried the food at Jack Rose (18th and U Street)? I've been there a few times to marvel at the drinks list, but I've never actually ordered any food. Does the dining experience even come close to the cocktails experience?

Not a fan, alas. Which surprised me, given the chef's background.

Hi Tom! My friends and I do a monthly dinner at a 'new to us' DC restaurant once a month. Lately we've tried Bandolero, Graffiato, Thai Xrossing, and Rasika West End. I'd love to get a suggestion from you of a place to go for our next dinner. Anything out of the norm or somewhere that has really stepped up their game lately would be great. We tend to stay in DC, but are open to any kind of food! Thanks!!

You've eaten at some choice spots. Next outing, you should consider Blue Duck Tavern, which is better than ever under its new chef, Sebastien Archambault, or  New Heights, where former Cork Wine Bar chef Ron Tanaka now cooks. 

Tom, Any recommendations for late night eats on H Street in Northeast. Venturing out there this weekend with a group of out of town friends and we want some great food late. Appreciate your help.

Right now, my favorite restaurant there is Ethiopic. It never fails to please.  For cocktails, I'd check out Atlas Room and the new Boundary Road.

Tom, why are so many restaurants addicted to salt? I cook a lot at home and limit my use of salt so when I dine out, a lot of times I can't eat the food because it's so salty. I generally experience this at American restaurants (not ethnic restaurants). Is it ok for me to ask the cook/chef to limit their use of salt without offending him/her?

I think it's fine to let your server know you prefer a light hand with salt, but keep in mind, a lot of stocks, sauces and such are prepared in advance and thus not easily changed during service.

What is the best barbeque place in DC?

My vote goes to Hill Country in Penn Quarter.

 

Chatters, feel free to weigh in with your suggestions.

Tom, I cannot understand why this place does not get more buzz. The only review I can find from you was from 2009 when they first opened. I've had two fantastic experiences there in the last couple of months. First for my birthday and the second when 5 of us wine geeks had dinner there. Both times the chef designed a menu (7 course for my birthday, 5 course for the wine dinner) to go with the wines that we brought. Every pairing was excellent, the presentation fantastic, and the service could not have been better. In the case of the wine dinner, everyone is a "foodie" and the consensus opinion was that it was one of the best dinners we had in a long time. Of special note is the foie gras, which I love, but everything was superb. Do you have any plans to review them again? I know that I certainly recommend them to all my friends who appreciate delicious food well presented and excellent service.

For no reason, Cedar fell off my radar. Thanks for the reminder that I need to return.  (Its basement location doesn't do the Penn Quarter dining room any favors, but ...)

Without spoiling anything, how did you enjoy your first trip to Charlottesville? Will you be going back anytime soon?

Charlottesville was less delicious than I expected it to be, but I found some good restaurants thee last week. Possibly my favorite meal was the Mexican breakfast I enjoyed at the Saturday city farm market there.  And yes, I intend to return!

Hi Tom, the impression that I'm getting from a number of your recent reviews, dining guides, tweets, etc. is that there has been slippage in the quality of a number of area restaurants, even some of the high-end and normally reliable ones. What do you think is the explanation behind this? Can this simply be explained by tough economic times, or is there something else going on here? Have you noticed this decline in other cities as well?

I don't have a ready explanation for the lesser food I've been eating in the last few months, at restaurants as diverse as Bibiana, BlackSalt, Sushi Taro, La Chaumiere and a bunch of other places I've admired in the recent past.  I was only half-kidding when I tweeted that at the rate of my dining success, my 2012 fall guide would be a mere Top 10 list.

 

The economy has been up and down for awhile, so I don't think that's the culprit. Lethargy, maybe? Chefs resting on their laurels? You tell me, please! 

Hi Tom - I wanted to give a shout out to Marcel's for the wonderful food and service we had during a birthday celebration this week. My husband and I really enjoyed the whole experience and the nice birthday touches to the dessert course. However, I was initially put off a bit when I went to the website to check out the menu and found the one posted was from October of last year! I'm not looking for the menu for that day exactly, but I would at least like to see how they are using seasonal ingredients in their dishes to get an idea of what they are serving. Why don't restaurants put more effort into what is most people's first impression? Also, to address this topic from last week's chat, Marcel's website states that a jacket is required for dining so my husband and I dressed appropriately. It was a bit off putting to see a few patrons march through the dining room wearing t-shirts and jeans. I sympathize with the restaurant that it was a warm day and they need to fill seats, but it did put a small damper on what was our celebratory evening.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to remind restaurants to update their web sites and for diners to consider the style of the restaurant they're going to as they dress (or not) for dinner.

 

The group heading to H St is going to be out "late," and Ethiopic closes at 10 pm. If that's too early for them, Toki Underground is open until midnight.

Yes! Big fan of the tiny ramen joint.

For what's it's worth, I've been to Cedar twice in the past year or so- once for dinner and once for brunch. Dinner was superb; delicious food, clever flavor combinations, excellent service. The brunch was boring, overpriced, kind of lukewarm (literally), and accompanied by slow, unattentive service. Could this really just be related to the time of day? If you do end up going back, I'd like to know what you think.

I don't intend to keep my findings a secret!

 

As for brunch vs. dinner, a number of restaurants tap their B teams to work the weekend a.m. shifts.  No excuse, really, and I've noticed the difference at other restaurants, too.

I'm interested in reading your take, but I wonder if the food is better during the school year. Things get so slooooow during the summer in college towns.

Huh. Interesting question. Maybe I should wait for fall to go back. 

I'm not saying she deserves to be rude (and I can't believe I'm defending Masa 14 in general), but have you seen how off the rails 14th street has become on a sunday afternoon? With all the bottomless brunches setting up shop it's basically a multi-block frat party only with 30 year olds. It's got to be incredibly stressful for all the service staff.

I hear you. But there's a pleasant way of delivering The Rules to customers, and it sounds as if the hostess in question wasn't doing much to be sympathetic or helpful.

Why do so so many restaurants have dining rooms with noise levels that make conversation virtually impossible? I certainly don't want to dine in a silent restaurant but I'd also like to be able to converse without shouting. Love the fact that your reviews include decibels levels. It is the first thing we consider.

Part of the problem is the design, especially in new restaurants. Have you noticed how many arrivals are in big, concrete or brick rooms with unpadded floors and tables? A lot

I agree. The oversalting alone would ruin the whole experience for me and make me want my money back. This is a serious problem and, as you say, easily corrected.

I didn't write this for space reasons, but the brunch at Green Pig Bistro was pretty dismal. I later learned Mr. Harlan took that particular shift off (and unfortunately, the meal reflected his absence).

Why is there nothing interesting new in Old Town? It's a vibrant destination and yet the only person trying to keep things fresh is Cahill. Aside from his establishements, what do you recommend on my side of the Potomac in the Old Town vicinity?

Vermilion isn't owned by Armstrong & Co. !

Good Morning! I tune in every week from Portland, Oregon and I just wanted to let you know how much I love this chat. Even though I am not able to enjoy the recommendations you make, I cannot tell you the number of times I've said, "Well, Tom at the Washington Post says..." when discussing whether to dress for dinner or tip on takeout or encouraging people to speak with the manager immediately. Thank you!

You just made my day. Thank you.

Please don't! A: it's not necessary and B: if you're trying to do a quick check of a menu or hours at work, it's distracting. If I get music ON as the default, I quit my browser and give serious consideration to another restaurant.

Hear that, restaurateurs?

Tom, Have a promising first (blind) date on Friday night. Can you recommend a restaurant in DC or VA on a metro line that has a relatively quiet bar to start with drinks? If things go well we can then have dinner? All I can think of is 701. Thanks!

Ripple in Cleveland Park has a fun and not-too-noisy bar. So does Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan.

Hi Tom - Re: the chef change at Tallula. Does this also apply to Eat Bar. I have been a few times and liked the casual yet intimate atmosphere but always thought the menu, while good, could be broader and use a refresh. Thanks and happy eating.

As I wrote in today's Dish column, the chef is changing the menus at both places.

Also, "skip intro" or "click here to enter site" are even more off-putting than music. If I need to take an extra step because your web designer is showing off, that tells me your priorities are not mine and I'll go elsewhere.

More no nos for restaurants to steer clear of.

Our restaurant suffered a three-day closure over the weekend of the recent storms, and we had a full book for two of the three days. We extracted reservation information from OpenTable (they were very helpful, considering we couldn't get into our own system without any power, just like hundreds or thousands of other restaurants in the region!) and the chef and the co-owner of the restaurant split the list and called each reservation personally to let them know we were closed and apologize. Frankly we did not do anything other than that - we had already lost a full weekend of business due to circumstances outside our control - but people seemed genuinely appreciative to receive calls from the owners of the restaurant, and we did recapture some of those reservations almost immediately once we were able to reopen.

Thanks for weighing in.

A friend is coming in from the hinter-hinter-hinterlands and wants to have dinner tonight. I don't want to spend the entire evening - I'm hoping to be done with dinner by 8. She's staying at the Madison. What can you recommend that won't consume the entire evening?

Want to stick near the hotel? Try Mio on Vermont & L.

 

That's a wrap, gang. I won't be hosting a chat July 25, but I'll be back to answer your questions and address your raves and rants Aug. 1. In the meantime, dine well -- and stay cool.

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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 contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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