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

Aug 01, 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.

Dear Tom, A group of us went to PS 7 last Saturday and had drinks and appetizers before going to see Jennifer Lopez at the Verizon Center. We had reservations for 6:00 and we were all there on time. One of us ordered the pickled martini and asked for Hendricks. Well, they were out of Hendricks, Bombay and Tanqueray, on a Saturday night! But what really got us was how incompetent our waiter was. I don't know if he was new but he had to run somewhere to find out about a number of items we asked about and when we were ready to leave, he was nowhere to be found. Just seemed totally disorganized. Not to generalize but this is pretty endemic to DC. I travel a lot and am astounded at how poor the service is here where I live. No, we didn't complain. It doesn't seem worth it anymore. Restaurant owners and managers read this chat and the topic has been raised numerous times. Do they not care? Is there something in the water that makes having a competent waitstaff difficult? Do owners know they don't have a lot of chances to make a good impression? Thanks for letting me vent! It reminds me of the days when we didn't call the police for things as minor as robbery! MPD has improved tremendously, why can't restaurants?

Funny, just last night at One of the Hottest Restaurants in Town, a server informed me the bar tender couldn't make a featured cocktail because "we're out of it."

 

This was at 6:30 at night. Apparently, a key ingredient hadn't been restocked from the previous night.

 

There's good and very good service to be had in DC, but I agree that a lot of it isn't as polished as it could be. One problem, I think, is a shallow pool of talent and this despite the economy.

 

Happy Hump Day, everyone. Lots to chat about, as usual. Did you hear Jeff Buben is poised to open two ideas under one roof? Or that the former chef at Central is  preparing to cook at an 18,000 square footer in Sterling?  Meanwhile, Jonathan Seningen has moved over to the vegan-friendly Elizabeth's Gone Raw.

 

Anyone been to the Windy City lately? I'm going to be there for a quickie trip and would love, love, love your ideas for *new* restaurants (under a year).  And yes, I've been to the newest incarnation of  the experimental Next.

 

Ready, set, rant (and rave)!

Tom, I wanted share a wonderful dining experience I recently had at Blue Duck Tavern. My boyfriend and I went to BDT for dinner and ordered two entrees and a third dish to share. My boyfriend loved his meal, and I cannot speak highly enough about the risotto, which I believe is the best risotto I have ever had (and as a vegetarian, I was happy that there were two vegetarian entree options on the menu). The dish we shared, however, was not to either of our taste, and sat almost untouched. We did not complain, but the servers noticed we hadn't eaten it and told us that they would comp us for that dish, and offered to bring something else. We politely declined and the chef then came to our table to personally apologize and offer another dish or dessert on the house. We chose to get dessert, and were also brought two glasses of dessert wine, gratis. The restaurant really went above and beyond. I have been to many restaurants where I barely touched a dish, and it is never noticed. I have also had times where I complain and nothing is done. In this case, I didn't say a word and was comped the dish, comped dessert, and comped two glasses of wine. If that's not fantastic service, I'm not sure what is.

Fantastic service is one of several reasons I gave Blue Duck Tavern three stars (an "excellent" rating) in my recent spring dining guide. The food, under new chef Sebastian Archambault, also happens to be pretty spectacular.

 

If someone leaves most of a dish untouched, a server or manager should ask about the remaining food. I dined at a (soon-to-be-previous) three-star restaurant the other night and left most of my entree behind.  No one inquired why.  The lack of curiosity was not what I expected, given that the bill was $300 for two!

 

 

I'm a regular at a place near my house and I love the food and the wait staff is great. Here's the problem: If you report any issue (even a minor one) the management over apologizes and things get awkward. The standard seems to be two different managers come over separately (sometimes more than once) to apologize profusely. Please note, we are not reporting things to management but if they get wind of the issue (which somehow they always seem to) then this is when this starts to happen. Recently a waiter forgot a dish and we asked him about it. Long story short, I left the place feeling like this minor situation got our waiter fired even though I stressed it was no big deal, accidents happen, etc. I love this place (and you do too according to a recent review). Any advice?

  You can 1) clip this Q & A and leave it somewhere management is sure to find it or 2)  let the supervisors know up front how much you enjoy the food and service, but add that you're hesitant to raise the most minor of questions because of the effect it has on not just the staff, but on you and your comfort in the restaurant. Say this with a smile and see what happens.

Hi Tom, I didn't find any posts on OKC in your travel Postcards, but I was hoping you or fellow chatters could suggest some dining options. (or what to avoid) We're open to all cuisines and prices. Help!

Chatters?

So I went to Estadio two weeks ago and loved it. It was one of my favorite meals in DC in a while. Is there anything else that is just as original and tasty?

You mean serving Spanish small plates? Si. Estadio's competitors include the better-than-ever Jaleo in Penn Quarter and the hopping Boqueria in Dupont Circle.

Tom, Thank you very much for taking my question! My husband is turning 40 next month and has just discovered that he loves sushi. So far, he's only had grocery store sushi, and I want to expand his horizons, but I don't know my way around sushi restaurants in DC. I've made reservations for kaiseki at Sushi Taro -- should I splurge for the omakase? Or should I try another restaurant? Thanks!

Your mate is in for a treat.  Sushi Taro's pricey "chef's choice," served in a serene back room,  is the best of the lot in Washington, although the counter at the long-running Makoto in the Palisades counts fans, too.  (The reason I don't like the latter as much is because it tends not to change its selections as much.)

My mom is coming to visit for a week in August and would like to spend some time in Georgetown. Are there any new restaurants worth checking out for lunch? Or classics that still hold up? Her tastes are fairly broad, but Asian and Indian are really not her preference. Seafood would be ideal. The last time I ate in Georgetown was probably 4 or 5 years ago so I have no idea of the current restaurant scene there!

Georgetown wouldn't be my first (or even third) choice for lunch with mom. But if that's were you need or want to be, your best bet is at Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons, where the lobster pot pie is among the several signatures.

Tom - I find myself in the fortunate position of having the time to treat myself to a sit-down restaurant lunch (instead of a sandwich at my desk) in the general downtown DC area about once a week or so. Like anybody, though, I am a fan of a good deal. Any suggestions for well-priced several-course lunch menus or other bargains to be found? I'm open to a variety of foods, and a decently-priced wine-by-the-glass menu would be a bonus!

DC brims with good lunch deals right now. In particular, I applaud the programs at Mio downtown -- three courses for $20 -- and Fiola in Penn Quarter, which offers a "light lunch" of three courses for $24 (the entree is typically a choice of fish or pasta). And I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention Vidalia and its $19.90 list, priced in recognition of its many years in service.

 

Chatters, what are your favorite afternoon meal deals?

Hi, Tom, Any thoughts /recommendations regarding Zorba's or another DC restaurant that could cater food for a 30 person event? I've not tried their food, but their online catering menu looks right to us. We'll not have a kitchen available at the venue, so we're looking for good food, not too fancy, for a group of 30 or so 30-somethings in mid October. We'll have a bartender and server available. Thanks for any advice you can give!

It's been a long time since I've eaten at Zorba's, so I don't feel qualified to give you an opinion, but I can vouch for its competitor, Greek Deli & Catering, on 19th St.  All the classics are accounted for: spanakopita, moussaka, gyros in all sorts of flavors.

More a comment than a question, but I recently made a brunch reservation at Tabard Inn. We've been so excited to try it because we've read so many great reviews, drooled over their menu and photos online, and were so charmed by the looks of it when we walked by. We tried making reservations a week and a half in advance, which admittedly may have been a rookie mistake. However, I was taken aback by how, frankly, snotty the reservationist was when I tried to ask for an early reservation. Her tone of voice implied that I was an idiot for not realizing I wouldn't get anything before noon if I was calling merely 11 days in advance. I guess my rhetorical question is, don't people realize that my first impression of your establishment can happen before I ever step foot inside of it? My experience with her was essentially the opposite of an amuse bouche. We're still going and I'm still excited, but a little less so. Too bad.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity me to remind restaurants that first impressions can be made well ahead of anyone being served a morsel of food or a splash of wine -- and not just on the phone, but also online, at the valet stand and the host podium.

 

We were really looking forward to the opening of Del Frisco as we ate lunch at the former Les Halles at least twice a week if not more. After reading your first bite review, I doubt we will try it. Do you think it's just that they haven't gotten into the swing of things? I would think that is not the case if they have a tried and true copy in NYC.

Granted, the restaurant is young, but I visited it twice for the preview and twice experienced problems with the cooking, the service and the general atmosphere. I felt as if I were eating in a big chain restaurant. Which I was. 

My wife and I have tickets to a show at the Kennedy Center on Friday, and didn't plan ahead really well because we weren't sure if our baby sitter would be available early enough for us to have dinner. The show is at 7:00 (seems a little early, but probably helps with our lack of reservations). Any suggestions for a place near-ish (could probably go as far as Dupont and still get there fairly easily) that has good drinks and apps, or that opens early enough to do an actual dinner? We have no restrictions ingredients or ethnic origin of the food, and would probably be looking to spend in the neighborhood of $100, give or take.

You know what's fun and fits into your price range?  Bayou in the West End for oyster po' boys, (savory) crawfish cheesecake and Hurricanes. Well, make that a single Hurricane. Too much rum before the show and you'll be asleep before intermission.

Hi Tom - gotta vent here. I am so tired of the latest trend of restaurants shifting toward tasting menus and tasting menus only. When I go out to eat, I don't often order three (or four, or five) courses, and I resent being forced to pay for them. I also don't like having my choice essentially whittled down to what is often the least unappetizing option for a course. If I'm spending $100 on dinner (not including drinks), I'd like it to be on all dishes that I am excited about, not dishes that the chef thinks are what I should be asking for. Again, I don't mind if it's a special option that the restaurant offers for those who are willing to pay for and sit through it, but I'd like to just be able to order my entree and enjoy my dinner.

You're preaching to the choir. I tend not to be a fan of tasting menus, either, and I especially don't like it when my options start at four or five courses.

Tom, What are you favorite restaurants that have take out or delivery in DC? I am getting sick of the same chinese/pizza options I fall back on. Thanks!

Close to you, I like Banana Leaves. Its lengthy menu goes beyond Chinese to include sushi, Thai and Malaysian food.

hi tom- love the chat. any thoughts? I'm going tomorrow night. thanks!

I like it. If I had to eat in Bethesda tonight, that's where I'd likely book a table.

Graffiato does a nice $20 3-course lunch at the bar only.

Consider it added to the list.

Well, how was Next? Enquiring minds want to know.

You know, I wish I had the opportunity to try its other incarnations: Paris in the 1900s, etc. I was frankly underwhelmed by the Sicilian script. Don't get me wrong. It was fun, there was some lovely flavors, but I wouldn't jump through hoops to do that part of Italy again.

Hi Tom, My partner and I are getting married at the DC Courthouse later this month and we're celebrating with a stay at a nice DC hotel. We'd also like to go out for a celebratory dinner and we're currently between Eventide and Sou'Wester. Do you recommend one over the other? Or do you have a different establishment altogether that you think we should check out? Thanks!!

I re-reviewed Eventide for the spring guide (I like it well enough) but have yet to check out Sou'wester after the departure of chef Eddie Moran (now at Ulah Bistro on U St. NW).

 

With any post-wedding restaurant pick, you want to choose a place you think might be around for awhile -- you know, so you can celebrate future anniversaries  there. Given that, I'd opt for the historic 1789, the cozy Al Tiramisu, the chic J & G Steakhouse or the festive Central Michel Richard.

I tried Del Frisco on Saturday with a couple of kids after sightseeing. It was good for what it is -- a chain restaurant, slightly upscale from Friday's or others like it. The food was OK. The space is beautiful though.

I can see a family having a good time after a day at the Mall ...

Hi Tom, I lived in DC for 10 years but now only get to the city a few times a year. In town this wknd from Texas, I seek a fabulous meal with my best fried and dining buddy, a local. On recent visits, we scored with Rasika and thought Graffiato was o-k. Regular faves are Central and Marvin. What are 2 Hoyas to do in DC's bustling restaurant scene this wknd? Hoya Saxa!

I think Mintwood in Adams Morgan is a great addition to the city. So is Little Serow in Dupont Circle, but you have to line up early to get in easily (and you have to dig hot and sour food).

Hi Tom! Usually I'm the person people hit up for suggestions for events or locations around town, but this year, I'm a bit at a loss for a dinner spot for my wife's birthday dinner in September. Nothing is jumping out at me this year. Past locations have been usual suspects: Komi, Cityzen, Citronelle, Restaurant Eve, Rasika, Minibar. Any pointers for me this time around?

Your wife is a fortunate woman! Has she supped at Fiola? Woodberry Kitchen (in Baltimore, and worth the journey)? The aforementioned Blue Duck Tavern? The Oval Room?  All excellent.

Unfortunately, Oklahoma City isn't exactly the epicenter of culinary America, but there are some decent places - and the prices are nice. You can get really good Continental French fare at Frottage du Lac downtown. There is tons of Tex-Mex, but I would go for the authentic Mexican at Monterrey House - where I had the most wonderful tacos which transported me back to that fateful spring break where I (coincientally) felt the touch of another man for the first time. Hope this helps!

Thanks, amigo.

Hi Tom! So I was at Del Fresco's Grill for an event. I tried their sirloin sliders and thought they were tasty and not over cooked. I also enjoyed their tuna tacos. But the one appetizer I hated with a passion was the Cheese steak Eggrolls with their sweet & spicy chili sauce. The sauce doesn't go with cheese steak so combined it was funky. I also checked out Pacifico Cantina. That was the blandest tex/Mex I've ever had and overpriced.

Thanks for sharing. I think we can agree the newbie needs some work.

Loved the vegetarian green zebra on a recent visit! And dc doesn't have anything like it!

Been there. Liked it. And you're right: We could use some stylish meatless restaurants here.

Since someone brought it up... I love sushi and am a pretty adventurous eater, but I must admit that I'm a little ooked out by certain dishes like, say, turtle. Or fish jaw. And as much as I try, I can't get a taste for salmon roe. Do they let you know the menu beforehand so you can veto some dishes?

There is *some* choice allowed at Sushi Taro, as I recall. Fish jaw is an acquired taste, I agree. Don't think turtle is on the menu. As for salmon roe, bring it on, baby.

Try Yamas in Bethesda. Not sure if they do catering but if they don't the owner is super nice and can probably recommend someone. (No, I'm not related to the owner.)

Another option.

Thanks for taking my question on Sushi Taro -- I'm going to upgrade to the omakase. For the couple getting married at the DC Courthouse, I'd definitely go to Al Tiramisu afterwards. It's been our go to cozy romantic/celebration spot for years, and I always leave very happy.

My last dinner there wasn't that memorable, but I'm eager to go back; the hostess and the server were so engaging, "OK" didn't matter.  Food isn't everything.

Tom: Have you ever considered doing a review/comparison of fast food joints most of us eat at like Mickey Ds, Burger King, Arby's etc? It might be informative to those of us who cannot eat elegantly most of the time.

I've not only thought about, I've done it.  Back in the mid-90s, when I was working as a critic for Microsoft's Sidewalk site --- anyone here remember it? --- we decided to publish mini-reviews of all the major fast food chains and run them in the dozen or so cities we covered. To do that, I spent a week in San Diego eating at something like 15 or 20 chains. It was an eye-opener, a gut-buster and one hell of a salt exploration.

 

Maybe it's time for me to do it again.

For those in Tenleytown/Cleveland Park, Masala Art delivers, and it's absolutely delicious. Besides that, though, I'm also wondering about delivery options that aren't your standard pizza/pasta/Chinese in upper Northwest...am pretty bored with my options lately.

Yes to Indian that can be brought to my door!

Thank you for the warning on Del Frisco. I have no intention of eating there, but work nearby and am often trying to set up a happy hour in the neighborhood for a an unknown number of people (send out email to many; sometimes all show up, sometimes few). Aria is awful, Chef Geoff's and Elephant and Castle are always packed and not worth a wait. How do you think Del Frisco fares for drinks after work?

As a watering hole, it's probably fine. I'd be inclined to move closer to the Hill, though. Think Cap Grille (just for drinks, because the food is dreary), Central Michel Richard or the Source.

Um, I think the Oklahoma City responder was trying to put one over on you. "Frottage" is a sexual activity, which would go along with the suggestive remark about touching a man's hand. A famous travel review site does not list any restaurant by that name.

Should have picked up on that. Looks like I've been punk'd.

Hi Tom I went to Chez Billy this past weekend based on your review. Whoa, what a great find. It looks like they may have taken your advice on vegetarian dishes; they have a tomato salad that was out of this world and the eggplant ravioli was divine. Thanks for the tip!

Whoo-hoo!

Anyone else curious about the back story on this?

I read that one too fast, published by mistake. My apologies to the forum.

My elderly mother is visiting, she loves duck and escargot, do you or any of the chatters know where I can find her either of these in a quiet setting without a lot of steps? Thanks!

The youthful Chez Billy does a nice job with its duck confit (go early to avoid the din, though) and for escargots ... I'm at a loss for a good source at the moment. Chatters?

Here's one I have never encountered: I had dinner Sunday at a favorite of mine with a group of out of town guests -- food great as always, service simply lousy with long waits for wine, some of the party not getting food while others were served, missed orders, etc. Only a complaint to the manager seemed to right the ship but the start (45 minutes) was pretty rocky. Overall the tab was very expensive because we drank three bottles of wine -- and then I am told that an automatic 20% applies because we were 7 people. There is no way I would have tipped 20% for the poor service we received. What do you recommend in such circumstances?

I recommend a chat (off to the side, and diplomatically) with the manager to let him know how disappointed you were with the service and to stress that 20 percent is more than you care to tip for a waiter who wasn't doing his job.

Don't forget "on the street." Restaurant staffers smokers outside the front door tend to turn me off--especially if it's the kitchen staff. (And why is it that 80% of restaurant staffs seem to smoke, when only 20% of the population does? Perhaps the rebellious streak explains the lackluster service overall?)

YES. I can not tell you how many times I've observed bad behavior by restaurant employees outside -- but still close to -- their charges.

Eew. Please don't. I don't have any interest in learning if Micky D's beats out Wendy's for the absolute bottom rung of "dining" options, and from the questions you publish here, can't imagine that it would be of much interest to this crowd. Besides, that food is terribly unhealthy, and we want to make sure that you're around for decades to come!

You are too kind.

I've spoken to that receptionist, too. She left on a bad impression on me as well. I'm sure it's not fun to have to tell people over and over that there aren't any reservations available at their requested time, but she really needs to work on projecting a nicer attitude.

Catch that, Tabard Inn?

Did you say or imply that La Forchetta was changing its name? Do you have any more information on this? We tried it for the first time last weekend and really enjoyed our meal. Nice service, good food, and a great addition to the neighborhood.

At the moment, only its signage is being altered.

I'm off to Israel for 2 weeks at the end of the month and am looking for restaurant suggestions in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem -- extra points for the best Falafel place in the Middle East!

A dear friend with a great palate emailed me with the following ideas for Israel, which he recently visited:

 

Do not miss:  Arcadia in Jerusalem, helmed by chef Ezra Kedem, is "absolutely wonderful."

 

For falafel, try Hummus Lina on the Via Dolorosa (enter at Damascus Gate).

 

The "best of all hummos in the world is Abu Hassan in Tel Aviv."

 

Hope that helps.

So, I must know... what would be your first (and third) choices for a mother/daughter lunch?

I was referring to neighborhoods when I typed that.  Penn Quarter and the Golden Triangle stock better choices than G'town.

After hiding from the world after an abrupt break up, I want to treat myself to a nice dinner out. I am thinking a good bar where the food and drinks are good, price is reasonable (under $75 for one), and the bartenders are talkative yet not over bearing. NOVA and DC is preferred. Basically, I want to go to a place where I can blend in and feel comfortable without standing out as the single girl.

Sorry to hear your news, but happy to fix you up with the right restaurant. I'm a big fan of the bars at Ripple (the handsome bald dude is taken, I should warn you), Jaleo, Bibiana, Estadio, the original Rasika, Fiola (yep, the dashing Jeff Faile is hitched as well), Perry's, the Source ....  How's that for a (fresh) start?

Hi Tom, My boyfriend and I are eating dinner at Fiola late this Saturday night for his birthday. What do you recommend we order? Anything I should know beforehand? Any tips you have are appreciated! Thanks (and, btw, love your live chats!)

From the current menu there, I'd probably spring for any of the pastas, the veal chop with its glossy sweet-and-sour sauce and any of the fresh fish. Also, ask for suave Artur, who is one of the best servers in all of Washington. 

You can get good steak at Cattleman's Restaurant.

Reader to the rescue!

you have to make a separate reservation for the Kaseiki? oh no. I've booked for when my parents come, but didn't specify that. should I call and change?

The main dining room and the place where the chef's choice is served are two very different reservations.

Simple tip...smile when speaking on the phone! People really can tell.

I know a publicist who does that. And it works.

L'Auberge Chez Francois. Duck is not always on the menu though. If you go, ask the server to point your mother to the ladies room on the first floor rather than the main one in the basement down the steep stairs. They always do for my elderly MIL.

Great choice. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

 

Folks, my internal lunch bell is ringing. Let's gather here again next Wednesday at 11 a.m. Thanks for participating (and for keeping me on my toes!)

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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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