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

Jan 02, 2013

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.

Loved the column offering restaurants and diners some New Year's resolutions, Tom. You do a terrific job, and we are delighted to have you here at the Post. I appreciate that you cover an array of dining establishments across the economic and geographic spectrum. Jes sayin'!

Let me toss the bouquet right back: My job wouldn't be half as much fun without the give-and-take I enjoy with readers. You are a smart, passionate, and often funny bunch and I consider myself lucky to write for you.

 

I'm glad you enjoyed my lists of resolutions for both the industry and its customers.  Curious what you and others would add to the roster?

 

Happy 2013, everyone. I hope you all had a happy and healthy end to 2012. I hosted a small New Year's Day lunch yesterday, at which I served a kale salad with shaved fennel and almonds courtesy of the Washington Post Food Section (courtesy of the Obama White House; the recipe was featured on the First Family's Thanksgiving menu).

 

Caffeinated? Let's get crackin'.

Do you ever get tired of eating out? I realize that you travel to a much wider variety of places that the typical diner, but does it still become too repetitive. I find myself running out of good options. I have been to my regular places too often. I find myself thinking, not Mexican again, service there is too slow, or something a bit less expensive would be better.

While I don't always relish the thought of going out every night, once I'm in the door of a restaurant and start ordering, I'm fine.

 

  Two things keep me interested: the variety of restaurants I cover (Indian one night, French another, Korean a third) and the company I choose to keep.  Even bad restaurants aren't so bad if you're experiencing them with good conversationists.

My two friends want to take me out for my birthday dinner. I don't need a fancy meal, but I'd like a good one. Where would you go if you were me? DC or Arlington preferred.

I'm a big fan of  Thai X-ing and Chez Billy in DC and Liberty Tavern in Arlington.  Any of them would be a fun place to toast another year.

I am wondering how your friends in the industry recommend handling this: We sat down for a 9pm reservation at a fancy D.C. restaurant New Year's Eve. After we ordered wine, a couple with an 18-month-old baby was seated next to us. The baby didn't cry, which I assume would have forced the parents to remove her. Instead, she made her presence known throughout by banging silverware, shrieking and walking around our section of the restaurant, even to our table. Obviously, it's not the restaurant's fault, and we would have asked for another table if they had been seated first (and the place wasn't packed). Is there anything we could have done?

Unbelievable, huh? What were those parents thinking?

 

You say the restaurant wasn't completely full. Did you consider asking to be relocated after the family arrived? That would have been my first move.

 

Restaurant owners, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this scenario.

Tom- Love your reviews. What should I think when I see a first bite for a restaurant, but no follow up full review (and its been over a year). Does that mean you went back and decided it wasn't worth a review? Or should I not read that into it? FWIW- the restaurant I was interested in was Sea Pearl-- trying to decide whether to go and could only find the first bite. We went anyway and were very impressed, particularly at the level of service and how attentive they were to our small children and strangely behaving older parents.

It all depends on the restaurant.

 

Ambitious places, like the new Range from Bryan Voltaggio, are almost surely going to get a full review in the Magazine following a preview in First Bite.  Smaller places are candidates, too, especially if I like them. But a preview in Food section doesn't always translate into anything more down the line.  Sea Pearl, for instance, was fine, but I didn't think it merited more ink than what I orignally gave the place.

A friend is taking me to the motorcycle show at the Convention Center this weekend and we are hoping to grab a late lunch around the area. I know a number of places have gone up near Mt. Vernon Triangle and over a few streets on 11th what are your suggestions for a delicious lunch (dont let the motorcycle thing fool you, we love a good classy meal!). Thanks as always for your help.

In that neck of town, I think both Kushi and Mandu offer some interesting Japanese and Korean food, respectively.

Why the hate for congee, Tom? Are you just saying the rice pudding was too savory for dessert?

Ha! I like congee, a lot. But when a dessert is labled rice pudding (see my Range preview) it ought not to taste like Chinese gruel. Call me ... picky.

I will not let my personal biases and politics conflict with my restaurant reviews. I promise to do more reviews of restaurants outside the beltway in Northern VA. I will serve all the WP's readers and subscribers or I will retire by April 1.

And a Happy 2013 to you, too, old ... friend?

So did Sen. Thune make it to the party at all? Was he good company?

The poster is referring to a tweet of mine from New Year's Eve, when my dinner host asked me if I minded if a guy stuck in town without his wife could join our table. I said, of course! The extra turned out to be John Thune, the junior senator from South Dakota. He was very gracious and stayed almost til midnight, as I recall.  And he's a good eater.

As a type 2 diabetic, I wish restaurants would offer (a) at least one sugar-free, reduced sugar, or no-sugar-added dessert and/or mini-desserts as Brio, Seasons 52, and so many other restaurants do now.

That's a start. How about a good fruit dessert, like the baked apple I recently enjoyed at the redone Nage in DC?

Tom -- have you tried Fuel Pizza on K St? I have a voucher that expires today so I'm going to give it a shot. Nice selection of pizza toppings.

Have yet to try Fuel. Anyone care to chime in on its merits or faults?

A few weeks ago I asked for a suggestion for dining along 14th street with some out of town california friends. Alas Estadio didnt have anay reservations available so we hit up Masa 14 despite your suggestion to probably steer clear. And well I wanted to report back that we had a stellar meal! The chimichurri/garlic sauce that came with the perfectly crisped yucca fries was absoluely delish. The spicyness and flavor of the shrimp and bulgogi fried rice was amazing. I wanted to keep the plate all to myself. The salmon was great and the combo of the rice and red curry sauce with wonderfully seered salmon was amazing. And the warm and fluffy goat cheese on the proscuitto flat bread was divine. Definitely want to head back for their bottomless plates brunch!! So I say put Masa 14 back on your rotation for a great place to dine along 14th street!

If you're happy, I'm happy.

 

Thanks for the field report.

Happy New Year! Tom, I have three upcoming reservations and I'd love to have your opinion on whether I should keep all three or if there is maybe something else out there that is particularly special at the moment. I've got Mourayo, Bombay Club and Range on the docket, what do you think?

I wouldn't drop any of them. All are very different restaurants, obviously, but each is special in its own way.

Have you ever considered dining with Mr. Kliman from Washingtonian?

Funny you should mention my fellow hired mouth who chats every Tuesday at this time for his publication. We've actually had two recent off-the-record dinners together -- not saying where, though! -- and I found him to be delightful company. Smart, funny. I look forward to our next reservation.

I think OP meant the place *was* packed. It was NYE. One thing I do when people aren't paying attention to what their kids are doing is talk to the kid: "I don't think Mommy wants you to give me her cell phone." "You need to go back to your daddy now." That usually wakes the parents up a little bit. (Especially the cell phone thing...)

Or, if you *really* wanted to get a parent's attention, you could take the cell phone and say, "Thank you."

Every now and then, people will fault you for not providing enough reviews of places in NoVa, MoCo, etc. or places in the lower price ranges. Have you considered providing data that shows the number of restaurants you've reviewed by location, price range, cuisine, etc. It may cut down on the complainers and may be a useful tool for you.

I used to keep track, but I haven't for awhile. My resolution for the new year is to try to write about interesting places to eat regardless of where they happen to be. And the reality is, most interesting places crop up in and near Washington.

 

When I started this job in 2000, I was a slave to a self-made rule to review two places a month in DC and one a piece in Va and Md.  But last year, I found myself giving 1.5 stars to a good-not-great kabob place in Maryland, just because it was the best new place I'd eaten in the state in awhile and Md's time was due.  I probably won't do that in 2013.

Tom, I am returning to work as a server and bartender after a 2 year absence, to push paper. Is there anything that you think I should be particularly aware of that has changed in that time (aside from all of those eggs that chefs want to put on everything).

Unfortunately, you'll be competing for diners' attention with more cell phones than you ever thought possible.  That's changed. Anything else, chatters?

Hi Tom! We're heading out to Zaytinya today for a birthday lunch; any dishes that shouldn't be missed? Thanks so much!

The menu changes a lot, but if they're offered, don't miss the snail fritters, lamb-filled phyllo and red lentils in lettuce cups. Honestly, it's hard to order wrong at Zaytinya, though.

"I promise to do more reviews of restaurants outside the beltway in Northern VA. I will serve all the WP's readers and subscribers or I will retire by April 1." C'mon, man! It's the Washington Post, not the Manassas Post! You're doing fine, Tom. Maybe this one guy who keeps writing in can start his own little dining review rag for outside-the-Beltway Virginia. Seriously, that's pretty far away from DC.

Like I said, "interesting" is my bar this year. (Thanks for the support, by the way.)

My daughter and SIL recently moved to a new city far away from sisters, grandparents, friends, regular sitter, etc. They don't know any sitters, let alone any they trust with their 18-month-old. Should they not go out to eat until she's 6?

I think the issue was not bringing a baby into a restaurant, but doing so after 9 p.m. on one of the busiest and most formal restaurant nights of the whole year.

As soon as the child started making noise or walking around, you could have asked for another table. WHich might have gotten through to the parents.

Or, at the very least, if the baby started fussing or walking around, a manager could have asked the parents to keep him or her still for the sake of everyone's safety.

Hi Tom, I love your chats and wanted to get some advice. (please feel free to remove the restaurant name if not appropriate). My husband and I and another couple went to dinner at a large, casual downtown restaurant (the Hamilton) on Sunday. We had 5 pm reservations, and the restaurant was not crowded when we arrived. I'm sad to report our experience was far from great. It took 2 hours to receive our food. During that time we asked our waiter, and other wait staff, on the meal's status, and multiple times we were told "it will be here momentarily." We were not offered any bread like all of the tables surrounding us, and when I asked about gluten free options before I ordered, the waiter simply said we do not have a gluten free menu and walked off. Once the meal finally arrived, our disappointment continued. My husband's fish and chips was nothing more than 2 forkfuls of fish and a plate of fries. Before he took a bite, we called our waiter over and asked if fish was missing (since it was a $22 dish), and he said "that's interesting and good to note" and walked away. And the meal that was "gluten free," which we asked for confirmation on twice, clearly wasn't. We mentioned our disappointment to both the manager and waiter, and our tip unfortunately reflected that as well. Before leaving the restaurant we wrote a detailed letter to the manager and gave it to him on the way out sharing our experience, including our email address. Is there anything else we can do?

I think you just did. (This chat has a lot of followers in the industry.)

Congrats, Tom. I think that's the first time this phrase has been said about anyone over the age of three!

Oh, yeah? I use it all the time!

Besides, isn't it entertaining to compose your review to yourself as you experience bad food, service, etc.?

I can't take credit for one of the most scathing lines ever to appear in one of my reviews. After enduring some of the worst food ever in DC, one of my kindest dining companions  said, "At least the water is cold."

At this point the manager should have been called.

Indeed.

This is what carry-out is for.

Other posters are sending me similar responses.

"Should they not go out to eat until she's 6" Well, not even then, if they can't either teach her to behave, or take her out when she doesn't behave. I'm boycotting my favorite Indian restaurant right now, because the last time we were there for dinner, a small child (looked to be about 1.5) howled (and I really mean howled) the entire time we were there. It's a small place, so we couldn't move. And we made the mistake of thinking, "Surely this can't go on all night." We should have left. By the time we left, the child was red-faced, and looked like she had made herself ill from the crying. And she had not been taken outside once. And then, one of the party followed us outside to accuse us of "giving them dirty looks." Since we had not been sitting in sight of them, they must mean when we looked at them in passing on the way out. The manager should have dealt with them. Since they won't, I won't be going back.

Are you listening, restaurants?

1. Be honest about the market you aim to serve. Don't claim you want to be everyone's neighborhood restaurant if you're charging $50 a plate. I'm curious about that Serbian restaurant that was discussed last week, which hopes to see people several times a week. My food budget is $15 a day, max. 2. Educate yourself about nutrition. At least know whether you're killing your regulars or not. (If your establishment is the type where a "regular" is someone who visits annually, you're absolved.)

Is anyone else tired of small plates meant to be shared and eager to see the return of main courses that you can eat all by yourself?

With our kids, we found that the ages of 18 mos. to 3 1/2 were just awful for anything but the most casual dining experience--dim sum being the delightful exception. The stress of containing children who aren't capable of containing themselves (which is as it should be, as my parents like to say) was just too much for us.

Interesting. Thanks for chiming in.

This makes me nostalgic. My late mother used to use that expression a lot. My father was a rather picky eater and I suppose that had something to do with it. I knew she truly approved of the man I eventually married when she approvingly commented after a shared meal: "He's a good eater." (She said it again many times more, and it's still a running joke with my husband and me.)

What a sweet story. "Good eaters" tend to be agreeable in other areas of their lives, I've learned.

And, how was the kale salad recipe that you made? It looks so interesting, but I wish the WashingtonPost recipes had reviews.

The fact the recipe ended up in the paper, after it was tested, is a signal of worthiness. I liked the "meatiness" of the kale, the crunch of the nuts and the creamy notes provided by the grated cheese.

Not to beat the topic to death but I had three well-behaved kids who learned early that a meal was sit down time, not TV time, and so at restaurants they knew to act the same way. However, we NEVER brought them to a formal restaurant on a formal night. And to the person who asks are they not supposed to go out until she's 6 ... sure, go out, but go out where there are likely not to be people paying top price for a quiet formal dinner! Anything otherwise is selfish.

I've learned, and hundreds of parents have shared, that Chinese and Mexican restaurants are among the best places to take pint-sized appetites.  Both groups are particularly good handling kids in their dining rooms. 

There is absolutely no place to dine in Mclean that's any good. Please convince a chef to open a place here. There would be a lot of business.

Probably the best place for a meal right now is the newish  Bistro Vivant.

My husband's grandmother after meeting me said, "I like her. She eats."

Ha!

To start learning to like Indian food, in part by starting with Rasika and Bombay Club (I figure I should start with the best, right?), but then moving on to other places.

Awesome resolution.

I think it was Disraeli who, at a dinner party where the food took so long to arrive that it was tepid/cold by the time it was served, murmured, when served a glass of champagne, "At last, something warm."

Love it.

The parents in that case showed extremely bad judgment by going to dinner after 9:00 p.m. with an 18 month old. A toddler should be in bed asleep at that time and was likely tired an cranky. That being said, I don't understand the aversion some people have to small children in restaurants. Unless you duct their mouths and tie their hands and feet to the chair, it is impossible to make them silent. They are human beings whose brains are still developing. Unless the restaurant adopts a "no kids" policy you just have to deal with it just as you have to tolerate cell phones, indiscreet conversations and a million other petty annoyances.

Right, but again, the big problem in this situation was the time and date of the meal.

Standing ovation for all of it.

Why, thank you!

I had the same experience just this past Sat. at the Revered Palena. I asked for my $18 appetizer (fish soup) to please leave out the potatoes. Fine. But they also left out the shellfish. I said they must have been chopped up because I didn't see any. He said they weren't that big and walked away. I know they're shrimp and shrimp-size, but come on! What gives Mr. Ruta?

Ouch.

Closed within 6 months of your At Least the Water is Cold review. Do you ever feel a tinge of guilt about a particularly harsh review, or are such business failings inevitable given the quality of food and service?

Honestly, I'd feel guilty if I didn't tell the truth about a restaurant. My job is to look out for readers, not for businesses.

 

At the same time, I strive to be fair in covering the industry, which is one reason I included a list of resolutions for diners in my Dec. 30 Magazine column.

 

Thanks for showing up for the first chat of the year, gang. I'll be back in the captain's seat again next Wednesday, same time, same station. Until then, dine well.

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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