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

Aug 08, 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.

Tom, my husband and I enjoyed a second fantastic meal at Ethiopic on Saturday evening. We ordered the doro key wat and the vegetarian sampler I, and every dish was top notch. Additionally, the hostess and waitstaff are superb in an understated way. This is definitely our go-to place for a moderately priced, nice dinner out. The experience was halfway ruined by the unruly children at the table next to us. When we walked in the restaurant, the kids were watching movies on iPads (sad enough in this day in age - what did parents do with kids before they could watch movies in a restaurant??!!). A few minutes later, they were literally racing each other around the restaurant, and one kept saying over and over "I have to go pee I have to go pee". The parents were so oblivious and too busy laughing and enjoying wine. I heard one tell the kids at one point to stop running, but of course they didn't and nothing was done about it. Other customers were clearly as annoyed as we were. What are you supposed to do in a situation like this? I don't want to complain to the server because they are so nice and I don't want it to seem as though I think it's their fault. But I'm also not a confrontational enough person to tell the parents to make their kids behave. Ethiopic is not Dave and Busters - what's the matter with parents these days??!!

I'm happy to hear you're enjoying Ethiopic as much as I am. It's probably my favorite place to eat on H St. NE right now.

 

About the unruly kids. Not only is their running around the dining room annoying to servers and patrons alike, the behavior is also potentially dangerous. And that's the position a manager should have taken with the parents: "I'm worried that your kids might get hurt, or disrupt a server. Could I kindly ask you to have them take their seats?"

 

Last week, I was in a restaurant where a kid tossed a beach ball (I kid you not).

 

Good morning, everyone. I'm working on a news item that I'll be sharing with you in a few moments. Please be patient until then.

 

Let's begin.

Hi Tom, I'm desperate. I need to find a very upscale restaurant (preferably a new one) in downtown Washington, DC for a BOD dinner. I'm expecting about 45 attendees. The problem is that I've done the same event 3 times a year for the past 14 years. We've done Citronnelle, Marcel's, The Source and many other great restaurants. I need something new. Any suggestions?

"New" as in young or "new" as in different from what you've done elsewhere? Among the more upscale venues in town, you might consider Elisir, Fiola, Blue Duck Tavern (with a terrific new chef), Rogue 24 (if you're open to something really novel) or Bourbon Steak.

876 Cafe opened up in Van Ness a couple months ago, right around the corner from where we live. My husband and I were really excited for it to open because there aren't a lot of good restaurants in our area, and Jamaican is an exciting option to have nearby. We have been there 4-5 times, and we are having a dilemma: We find the food quite delicious, but each time we visit we find our dining experience tainted by subpar service. Nothing overtly egregious, but the food is always very slow to come out (even though the restaurant is never more than half full), and the waitstaff are inattentive and disappear into the back of the restaurant for long periods of time. It always seems like they have something more important to do than serve the tables or provide food. Once we complained that the overhead lights were flickering and were disturbing us, but they were entirely indifferent and made no attempt to fix them. We love the food and having a new restaurant nearby, but should we continue to patronize an establishment which continually leaves us annoyed by the little things?

Is there a manager or owner you can talk to about this problem? Let him or her know how much you enjoy the cooking, but how  indifferent service has the potential to keep you away.  For what it's worth, I've encountered similar at many other Caribbean restaurants over the years. It's as if they're operating on island time.

We're night owls - both professionally and personally - and rarely can get away to eat before 9 or 9:30 in the evening. Too many area restaurants close at 10, and if you show up after 9, you're greeted with "sorry we're out of......", rushed service and the clatter of distracted wait staff setting up for the next day's lunch service. We often feel as if the entire staff can't wait to get rid of us (usually the last diners in the place) so that they can all go home. There are a few areas with later night scenes - Georgetown, Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter - but our usual haunts are upper Northwest and close-in Montgomery County. By 10pm, that's largely a dining ghost town. I realize that DC isn't New York, but are there any restaurants - both high end and casual - that will enthusiastically welcome diners at the tail end of their operating hours?

I just checked out the hours for a dozen or so (good) restaurants in that stretch and came up with only one recommendation, in Cleveland Park. Ardeo + Bardeo stays open til 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday nights.  What am I missing, chatters?

Read your review AFTER we had dinner at RWE. We hadn't tried everything you raved about, but agree the differences from Rasika are just enough to allow fun comparisons. Great service (of course) nice wine list (the French Colombard works!) and the room architecture is just fascinating. Valet parking, outdoor seating, walkable from Metro... RWE has it all. But they also have salt. We didn't take a lot of notes, but even the RWE-version of the fried spinach was a tad salty. Surprisingly so. Our chick peas were just perfectly cooked, and blessedly free of the healthy dose of salt found in all of the other things we tried. I'll try it again some day... and hope we had an off night...

As I mentioned in the review, owner Ashok Bajaj could have duplicated exactly what he did at Rasika with Rasika West End, but he chose to give the latter a different spin.  I admire that -- and I look forward to seeing the newcomer develop. I didn't notice an overdose of salt there, nothing along the lines of what I've tasted elsewhere recently.

 

News flash: Mr. Bajaj just called to let me know that he's acquired the Zola digs in Penn Quarter.  The deal happened so quickly,  Bajaj says, he has yet to think about what would work in that space. "I have to complement what I already have," including the nearby 701 and Rasika, he says. Whatever he decides, his next concept won't open until spring 2013.

As the father of 5 I have ALOT of experience with managing children in restaurants! The bottom line is, it's the parents responsibility to manage their children and not create an unpleasant atmosphere for other diners. I am always aware of this when we go out to eat, whether it's at McDonalds or Chez Francois. That said, there are some people who just don't like the notion of children being in restaurants and are hyper sensitive to their every utterance and movement. On a recent trip to a restaurant where my children were quietly chowing down a young woman said to the Maitre'd purposefully so we could here. . ."could we NOT be seated next to children!" I'm not suggesting your initial poster is of that variety. . .but they are out there!

Indeed they are out there (and I hear from them. A lot.) I agree with you: Parents should be the minders of their charges. The task shouldn't fall to restaurants or strangers.

Where would you go if you wanted to spend under $15 for lunch today in DC? No food restrictions, just looking for some good, cheap eats.

I'd belly up to the counter at C.F. Folks and get a chicken-almond  sandwich. Also in Dupont Circle: Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen for a rice bowl or banh mi.

 

Anyone else care to weigh in with cheap eats ideas?

Totally Hooters!

I'm not sure that's what the couple had in mind, but thanks ....

Lat night, I was given a choice of about 8 restaurants for lunch today - places such as Proof, Vidalia, Rasika, J&G, etc. I decided to check out all the menus before deciding. I wasn't able to get onto at least half of the websites due to flash requirements that my iPad cannot meet (and I no longer have a computer at home). Thus, I eliminated those restaurants from consideration. C'mon restauranteurs, simplify your websites! I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but maybe if they hear it enough, they'll realize the error of their ways.

Catch that restaurateurs? Your sites may be driving traffic from, not to, your dining rooms. 

If your readers are still seeking an escargot recommendation, @ Bistro Vivant, we have an escargot dish that varies from the common garlic and butter recipe. It is served with our Cafe de Paris butter, fingerling potatoes and Parmesan cheese.

Thanks for the addition, sir!

This wasn't in a restaurant but in a Costco. The parent was talking non-stop on his cell phone while the kids ran amouk in the store climbing over palets full of product. Very dangerous stuff and of course I knew if one of the kids hurt themselves that it would be blamed on Costco. So I went over to the parent (while still jabbering into his phone) and told him matter of factly to get off his phone and watch his children. He was quite startled but got off the dang phone.

Stores are not baby sitters, either. Geesh.

Problem isnt new back in 1979 I was carrying a flaming beef kebob for a nother server when I felt something grab my leg around the knee. My natural reaction since I palyed rugby should have to shake or kick the offender off. Instead I looked down and saw a very cute 4yo blond girl attached to my leg. I said honey you need to go back to your parents now. She was lucky she wasnt smashed against the wall or on fire. Her rents didnt ahve a clue to where she was. My parents started taking us out to nice restauarnts when we were young. Remmeber the Flagship no the original one. We were always told stop that now or you will be in the car so fast you wont know what happened. Hey we wanted the rum buns and the Fisherman's platter.

Thanks for sharing your story and bringing back some nice memories (both of parents who made their kids behave and of rum buns).

As a parent, may I offer a suggestion for families dining out- look for Happy Hour specials. When we go out (rarely) we tend to go early, 5:30, and find that ordering a half priced chicken quessadillla or sliders for our kids is a more relaxing evening (we get a table, we don't pony up my 4 year old to the bar!). We had a nice experience at Jake's on CT Ave recently. It lets us expose our children to dining out without putting too much pressure on them or on other diners. My wife and I are able to keep the kitchen clean for one night and we are gone before the place gets full.

Great idea, as happy hours tend to be noisy anyway.

I will throw out there that I had reason to look up Rasika's menu last week and saw a VERY new Website. Theirs used to be one of the worst, and it's much better now. Kudos! Also, PoP reported that Shake Shack is going to Zola. That contradicts your news. Does that mean Shake Shack will go into the Spy Cafe? That makes WAY more sense.

From what I've read/seen, the next DC  Shake Shack is going into the Spy Cafe, which is near but not part of, Zola.

I'm looking for a nice French restaurant to celebrate a special occasion next month. I have narrowed it down to Marcel's and L'Auberge Chez Francois. Which of those two would you recommend?

My recent dinner at Marcel's was technically correct but not as memorable as a year ago. Everyone seemed to be going through the motions of serving patrons.  L'Auberge is a much different kind of restaurant, old-fashioned and cozy and nestled in trees. It depends what you're looking for, really.

Harry: Why can't we get past this? I mean, are we gonna carry this thing around forever? Sally: Forever? It just happened. Do you have low salt dishes?

Thanks for the flashback. Loved that flick.

Any word yet on Voltaggio's Family Meal? Only been twice and both times for breakfast. First time underwhelming but they were soooooooooo busy. Second time seems they might have worked out some of their kinks. But $30+ for two for breakfast seems a little steep for our area. Good coffee though.

My review of Bryan Voltaggio's new diner in Frederick comes out this Sunday in the Magazine, but has already published online. 

 

Bottom line:  I dig it.

Add Oya to the list of restaurants that need to update their websites. Their lunch deal is the best in town, but the website hasn't been updated in over 9 months to reflect it!

Catch that, Oya? Corduroy also looks to be serving lots of cold-weather fare online.

You can tell when a family is out dining together or when the parents are essentially on a date with the children at the table. We have exposed our children to restaurant dining from a young age because it's something we enjoy and want them to enjoy as well. It's always about the food. As a result our children have broad and adventurous palates. . .for the most part. They love Indian and escargot and oysters and pate and Ethiopian and tapas. . .they even like vegetables. . .most of the time. But they appreciate the experience. They are engaged in the food and if they like it and what it tastes like and all that eating is about. Of course they are far from perfect and there's been plenty of scolding and reminding and ulimatuming. . .but we get "you're children are so well behaved" quite a bit and have never gotten a "would you please control your children." If the parents are just too cheap to get the babysitter and ignore the children, the probability for chaos is exponentially higher.

You sound like a four-star dad. Thanks for chiming in.

If you were in the Penn Quarter/Gallery Place neighborhood and had 1 hour and $15 for lunch, where would you go and what would you have?

Nando's Peri-Peri for some spicy chicken and creamy coleslaw!

Put the menus on the sites; don't make us open a PDF document that is invariably very badly formatted and hard to read.

Agreed!

 

Today appears to be evolving into a online  tutorial for restaurant handlers ...

I really like Sweetgreen for imaginative, tasty, and fresh salads. Their portions are quite generous and make for a filling lunch. I think most of their offerings are in the $10 or under range. I've always enjoyed what I've gotten there.

Good idea. Thanks.

 

As I type, I'm eating homemade kimchi -- and crying from the heat. (Thanks, Luis!)

Tom, really. This gets covered almost every week and the answers are the same. (and please, Costco is not a restaurant!) I come here to talk about food, not debate parenting strategies. should I go to the Caucus Room for Restaurant week next week?

Hey, I'm actually get some interesting stuff on the subject today, and I've been good the past few weeks about not addressing the issue.

 

Caucus Room is redefining itself. Not sure that's where you want to go before the new theme is implemented.

I had a similar issue once, and I found out that Ripple in Cleveland Park serves until Midnight. Bonus: They start their GRILLED CHEESE BAR at 10:30. You're welcome. ;)

Grilled cheese after dark. Mmmmmm.

Zola is a favorite place to eat lunch when we go to the National Portrait Gallery. I wish the two art museums would get a nice restaurant inside now that Zola appears to be going. Tom, how about a review of the eating places inside the museums starting with the Smithsonian ones? The eating place at the Capitol visitor center was very good and it appeared to have had input from women since there were more salads.

I recently previewed the Garden Cafe in the National Gallery of Art, which I thought was very good: a Spanish buffet inspired by the gallery's Miro exhibit.

Take out your video camera. If the parents say anything, just say it's for your Kids Behaving Badly" channel on YouTube.

HA!

Hi Tom, about a month or so ago, I was in Shophouse and was very sad to see that they have stopped offering the banh mi due to lack of interest apparently. Now it's a rice/noodle bowl or nothing. Still delicious, but man did I love their sandwiches.

Boo! Hiss! That must be very recent.

Alexandria Stoker--We went to a well known est. for p.rib, and ordered an 18oz steak to share. As soon as we said "share" the waiter's demeaner changed to why are you even here, and the meal went down hill from there. We share everything because the portions are so large. Why don't the chefs have entres that are more fitting to those of us watching our weight? On the other hand, we took a friend to the noted cafe in Alexandria and did the same sharing and had a totally wonderful meal--the porkchop and coconut cake were the best I've had this year...

Other than Olympians, few people need to eat 18 ounces of meat. I appreciate restaurants that offer half-portions of entrees.

A chatter last week asked for suggestions in Israel. You may want to check the blog of David Lebovitz, pastry chef, cookbook author and blog writer, who was in Israel last month and posted lots of information and suggestions on his blog (his photos are amazing - made me want to hop on a plane). www.davidlebovitz.com

Thanks for sharing. I love Mr. Lebovitz's musings on just about everything.

Tom, I do not want restaurants or the government telling me that I do not need to eat but a certain portion size and limiting what can be purchased. your snooty comment is unbecoming.

I didn't intend that to be snooty. But you know what? My money is going toward helping folks whose health problems are aggravated by obesity, a huge (no pun intended) issue in this country. I care what people eat for a number of reasons.

Tom -- A group of us are giving a gift certificates to various restaurants to a couple as a wedding gift. We want to do three dinners (they love all kinds of food). Preferably want one in VA suburbs, one in MD suburbs and one in DC. If you had to do the picking what would your three be?

Not sure what your budget is, or the taste of the couple, but how's this for a mix:

 

DC: Omakase at Sushi Taro

 

VA: Ashby Inn in Paris (the countryside is amazing)

 

MD:  Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore

I walked past the newest Hank's on my way hoem from work yesterday evening and was happy to see lots of happy people enjoying themselves. After reading your First Bite today, I'm hoping it becomes the kind of place I'll want to go to once a week or so. Nothing else on the Hill tempts me to become a regular (except Ted's breakfasts and We the Pizza, and burgers at Good Stuff when the kids are in town!) I'll keep my fingers crossed that this is a sign we are ready for great food and great service in the nabe.

I'd go to the newcomer just for some oysters and one of Gina's superb drinks! That bar is a beaut.

 

And on that note, I bid you all a delicious rest of the week.  See you back here next Wednesday, gang.

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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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