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

Jan 08, 2014

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.

How ironic that the most whimsically-challenged person at the Post takes on M. Richard for lacking whimy at his new place. And how strange that anyone who takes issue with any of your encyclicals is labeled a hater. Perhaps you could use a leave of absence to chill a bit. And what's the point of going to NYC and spending a bundle to write something hardly anyone here could care about. Just an excuse for an expense-account junket? I don't hate you but I am finding you increasingly strident and humorless.

 

And a happy new year to you as well!

 

The reason I went to New York to check out the work of Michel Richard at the Palace hotel is because Washington likes to think of the French chef as one of its own. Plus, a big deal chef taking over a fabled property in the Big Apple is news. Lots of  WP readers care about what's going on in NYC, by the way; one of my jobs is to help readers decide how to spend their dining dollars.

 

P.S. Following my preview, I heard from half a dozen readers who had experiences similar to mine.  I can't help but think you're close to the project, or one of Richard's peers or colleagues. (Sorry.)

 

 

Gang, it's great to be back at the table and chatting again.  Alas, I'm out of town next Wednesday (San Francisco, but definitely not a "junket" as the OP calls it) but I promise to be back here Jan. 22 and chat for weeks and weeks and weeks without interuption. Hey, I didn't decide that Christmas 2013 and New Year's Day 2014 would both fall on a Wednesday!

 

Lots to catch up on and chew over today.  Aside from that preview of Michel Richard Villard, there's news of a redo at Bistro Bis, a switch of chefs at Ovvio Osteria, my list of dining resolutions, changes at Bar Charley on 18th St. NW and a look at the latest from Derek Brown in Shaw. Also: Here's why your waiter might be patting his lapel.

 

Onward!

Be careful with restaurant gift certificates or gift cards -- you could be a recipient of one like we were for a famous Italian chef in DC, (who's name was on the restaurant), but the restaurant closed before we were able to use it. The folks who gave it to us were out several hundred dollars. To this day, whenever we get a gift certificate or gift card to a restaurant, we try and use it right away.

Yep, best to use any such gift soonish rather than laterish. And read the fine print, because some certificates come with a short shelf life.

 

Question for the poster: Does this unnamed restaurant have a sibling? If that's the case, you might inquire about using the gift there.

Tom, Can we assume that if an accessibility issue is not flagged in your review of a restaurant it is "wheeled mobility" accessible? I am temporarily limited to wheeled mobility because of recent foot surgery, but this is important for all to know. One step at the entrance is all it takes to make a place inaccessible!

While I like to give readers a sense of an establishment's design (pros and cons, including noise levels) I think it's up to anyone with a special request to make sure he or she can enjoy the restaurant. 

 

That means calling a restaurant ahead of any visit, asking to speak to someone in charge and being clear about your needs. It's the same strategy I's suggest for anyone with dietary or other issues.  Some restaurants are better equipped than others to make you happy.

Yes, the lighting is terrible and it's very loud. But their wine selection is so good and reasonable and the hanger steak and mussels, not to mention the fries, are worth it. I hadn't been in years and it's exactly the same. Which is not a bad thing at all.

Given all the nearby competition in recent seasons, Bistrot du Coin fell off my radar. Thanks for the reminder I need to reacquaint myself with the place.

 

In the past, I always thought  the restaurant pretty much lived up to its motto:  "French, fun and friendly," which is one reason that for years, you would find outside chefs there after their shifts.

Have you visited Republic yet? Thoughts?

I've eaten there several times now. My review of Jeff Black's latest, in Takoma Park, comes out Jan. 19.  Forgive me for not sharing more, but I don't wish to scoop myself.

Hi Tom - Happy New Year! I was wondering if you or any of the chatters have been to Mothership and if so, how is it? Haven't been yet but headed there for dinner next week. Thanks!

I've not been there, but Tim Carman has.

Tom: What's your top dish for cold weather?

Garbure, for sure. You can find the French peasant dish -- picture shredded duck, soft beans, carrots and cabbage -- at the new La Piquette (formerly Le Zinc) near National Cathedral.

I loved your 2014 dining resolutions - can I add one? Sit at dinner, not in traffic. Last night, 395 was a mess so instead of waiting in traffic we detoured to Rose's Luxury. We were able to find seats at the upstairs bar right away. Even though we were at the bar, they didn't skimp on service. The food was ridiculously good, the bartender equally fabulous. I've never been so grateful for a traffic jam.

Now why didn't I think of that clever resolution? Great idea (and good for the blood pressure to boot).  Thanks for chiming in.

So have you tried the newest restaurant in Clifton, VA yet? Thinking about trying it this weekend but looking for reviews first.

A friend of mine scouted the Italian newcomer for me:  "A neighborhood place making solid but unexceptional food," she reported a week ago. Anyone else been there?

Do you think some restauranteur could or will launch a fine-dining vegan restaurant here? Folks rave about Vedge in Philly and Crossroads in LA is simply amazing and drawing great crowds. Do you think DC would support such an endeavor? Suggestions for a local chef to step up?

Washington does have an upscale vegetarian/vegan restaurant. It's called Elizabeth's Gone Raw and it's set in a handsome townhouse downtown. While I gave it a good review three years ago, I no longer think it's a worthy destination. To boot, the place is priced like an upscale steak house.  A shame.

Hi Tom, I really hope you answer my question today. My husband and I recently discovered we are pregnant with our 1st child and we planned a trip to New Orleans in the near future. Due to my pregnancy, I need to be careful of how much seafood I consume in New Orleans and so I am looking for a restaurant that serves the best roast chicken. Please help me!

Um, roast chicken in New Orleans, anyone?

Merry Christmas and happy New Year, Tom. How could anyone seriously question going to New York City to check out restaurants? It's a mere four hours away from the capitol, connected by a train, and home of arguably the best restaurants in the country? I was there on the 26th and 27th and did all-Italian-all-the-time. Oh, Carmine's, how this Italian loves thee! Quite the different feel (more real?) compared to our giant location in Penn Quarter. Anyway, please keep the postcards and reports from Manhattan coming.

Will do, and thanks for the support.

You deserved the break, Tom. Can you tell us what you had for Christmas dinner, and New Year's brunch?

Christmas Eve is when my tribe does the big meal. We had crown roast beef (dry-aged for 100+ days!), mashed potatoes,  shredded Brussels sprouts with lemon zest, brioche rolls, a two-toned salad with anchovy dressing and a smashing  buche de noel from Praline in Bethesda. And lots of champagne, of course. On  Jan. 1, we started off with beans 'n' greens (for good luck), courtesy of my Significant Other,  followed by an early dinner at the home of good friends. They served an amazing seafood gumbo. (Thanks again, Ken & Gordon.)

On a recent trip to Paris, my spouse and I heeded your recommendation to try Le 6 Paul Bert and were able to snag a table for dinner without reservations. We had a stunningly beautiful and delicious meal, and the service was warm (if not all that attentive). While all of the courses were fabulous, one dish particularly stood out to us: a vegetarian dish composed almost wholly of mushrooms, which my husband swore was beef. The only issue with the dish was that it left me wishing I knew how to coax such flavor and texture out of mushrooms! To those readers who write in to gripe that your reviews and recommendations cross too wide a wide swath of our region (and the world): you never know when or where you'll need a bit of advice on where to dine! I'm looking forward to eating my way through as many of your recommendations as possible before we are assigned overseas later this year. My fingers are crossed that we'll be sent somewhere Postcard-worthy! Thank you for providing me with excellent dining advice over the past several years; you have yet to steer me wrong. Wishing you a delicious 2014!

What a nice note. Thanks for taking the time to write in response to the Travel section piece I did on some of my top meals around the world last year.  (Funny, the service I got at Le 6 Paul Bert was weak, too, but we sat so close to the open kitchen, we just started asking the cooks about the food when our servers couldn't answer our questions.)

Any thoughts yet on Roberto Donna's newest venture?

Hang tight, please. I'm previewing his new Italian trattoria next Wednesday in the Food section.

I am planning on taking my wife to a nice birthday dinner at Obelisk. I know it's been around for a while, but we have never been. I don't see you mention it very often. Do you think I should keep the reservation or look elsewhere? For what it's worth, we've had some great meals in the past year (Minibar, Blue Duck, Rose's Luxury, and Komi) and hoping this one is in the same conversation. Assuming we keep it, any recommendations? Thanks!

I'm very fond of Peter Pastan's Italian dining room, and while I appreciate its near-excellence there over the years, it would be really nice if  the owner spruced up the place some -- hey, even a fresh coat of paint would be a change  -- and focused on serving entrees that were as distinctive as what comes before and after them. 

 

Is Obelisk a standard bearer? Indeed. But even high-achievers need to refresh themselves.

Happy New Year, Tom! A decade ago my SO and I enjoyed a delicious meal at Montmartre. I have been tempted to go again but wanted to check in with you to see if it has withstood the test of time. The atmosphere is so cozy it is perfect for this time of year. Thanks in advance to you (or others) to can weigh in on the current state of this restaurant.

I went there right ahead of my 2013 fall dining guide, and liked enough of what I experienced at Montmartre to include it in a subsequent round-up of restaurants that almost made my list of  40 favorites.

One of the New York publications - maybe New York magazine? - had a really scathing review of the new restaurant, so you were definitely not alone in your opinion. Chill out, first commenter!

Bloomberg's critic, Ryan Sutton, listed 18 reasons *not* to dine there.

My favorite Brussels sprouts recipe is shredded with orange zest. Meet you over at the Food chat at noon to trade recipes?

Ha! Orange zest sounds good, too. (While Food is chatting, I'm usually at lunch. )

Recently dined at the re-opened Iron Gate and the setting for the restaurant is wonderful. It is like being transported in time. My wife and I got to dine by the fireplace, which was great because it was a chilly night outside. My concern is the pacing of the meal. It took about 3hrs to complete a 6 course meal. There was just too much time in between courses. I have been to Michelin restaurants that serve 20 course meals in 3 hrs. Of course those meals involve more one to two bite courses compared to what is served at Iron Gate. I hope Iron Gate works on their pacing and my wife and I definitely want to go back and dine in the courtyard once the weather is more manageable. I hope they work on their pacing

Three hours is a long time to be sitting, I agree -- almost like taking the "Journey" (24-course menu) at Rogue 24! Here's hoping the team at Iron Gate see this and take note.

Random, but it seems the delivery options in DC for decent food are pretty slim. Any reason why, or any places I might be missing?

Off the top of my head, I know that Banana Leaves in Dupont Circle and DC Noodles on U St. NW  make house calls.

 

Chatters, feel free to add to the list. Who do you call when you don't feel like cooking, but don't want to step out of the house, either?

Friends of mine from France are visiting and would love to take them closer to George Mason/fairfax city! Any good French/European place please! Thanks for the help

I'm not sure why you'd want to take Frenchies to a French restaurant, but that's not answering your question is it? 

 

How's this for a compromise:  Villa Mozart, the intime Italian restaurant on Chain Bridge Road in Fairfax.  Chef Andrea Pace turns out some beautiful Italian food; listen closely to the long list of specials, which are frequently some of the best dishes.

That area could use good restaurants. Do you recommend La Piquette overall, or just for its garbure? :)

The garbure in particular is very good, but there are certainly other reasons to visit the arrival. They include any grilled fish, steak frites and the refined apple tart with house-churned ice cream.

My father-in-law will turn 70 in March. He would prefer to celebrate with the family at a nice restaurant instead of a large party. We would like a place where we can get a semi-private space for seven adults and two young children. What recommendations do you have? He is not keen on ethnic food, though Italian is okay.

Try the private area at  downtown's Bibiana, where I just had a terrific dinner, or  the rear of Buck's Fishing & Camping in Upper NW for something more casual. 

Tom Off to Cancun tomorrow...Any ideas on good places to eat?

Never been. And lucky you! Cancun, anyone?

The spicier, the better.

I like the way you think.

The Americans with Disabilities Act might disagree with that!

Well, sure, there are certain rights everyone should enjoy, and I'm all for ADA. But diners need to take some responsibility, too.

What ISN'T ethnic food? I don't even understand what this means...

I don't like the term, either, but I get what the poster is saying.

We all don't think you're whimsically-challenged Tom. Most of us feel your whimsical abilities are at least average, if not slightly above. Happy New Year!

Uh ... thank you?

it smacks of "see, we can do it here too!" and American insecurity. Find them someplace uniquely American.

My thought, too. My brother's girlfriend from Sarajevo joined us for Christmas in Washington and while she had a lot of good food while she was here, her favorite meal was the hamburger at Palena -- so much so that she went there hours before her return flight for a second sandwich.

Last Saturday, my wife and I had a reservation for two at 5:45 at Wildwood Kitchen. We arrived a few minutes early and were placed at a table for four at the window. Only a few seats at the bar and the other window table were occupied. While not as cold as the last few days, it was quite chilly by the window and since all of the other tables were unoccupied, we asked the Maitre D' to move us. He said the other tables were reserved and we would have to agree to finish dining by 6:30 (i.e., in 45 minutes). I pointed out we also had a reservation -- and a waitress intervened on our behalf -- but he continued to essentially say take his offer or leave it. We left the restaurant, walked to Oakville Grill and had a perfectly lovely meal. Sunday morning, I e-mailed Robert Wiedemaier and described the foregoing. I have not received a response to my e-mail. There are a lot of dining choices going forward, but Wildwood Kitchen is no longer on my list.

Do me a favor and share your contact with me yet today. Keep in mind, restaurants are busy, we've just concluded holidays, chefs don't always get their messages, etc.

 

Trust me, Mr. Wiedmaier is interested in the well-being of his guests.  He also has a mini-empire of restaurants.

As someone who spends a fair bit of time in France, I would heartily recommend NOT going to a French restaurant. Broaden your horizons! The only exception might be to go to an Alsatian/very specific regional restaurant, a cuisine many metropolitan French people aren't always familiar with. If I'm abroad I don't go to McDonald's for some wholesome American fare.

Oui.

If you have a gift certificate or card that has expired on its face and the restaurant refuses to honor it, check your state laws. Many have laws that set minimum expiration dates. Alas, DC and VA don't seem to but MD law says that gift cards or certificates can't expire before 4 years. Here's a useful link to all the states. http://www.ncsl.org/research/financial-services-and-commerce/gift-cards-and-certificates-statutes-and-legis.aspx

This is a smart bunch. One reason I hate to miss a chat: I'm always learning something.

 

Thanks for weighing in.

For your next trip to New York City, I recommend DelPosto (perhaps you've been there, but I haven't seen a written piece on it). Not exactly a glamorous location, but when you walk inside it is the most formal Italian restaurant I have eve seen. It reminds me of the old Maestro in Tysons, but somehow even better. Quite possibly my favorite place for dinner in this country.

I was there when it was a three-star restaurant, and I loved it. Haven't been back to see how Del Posto tastes/performs as a four-star establishment.

when visiting foreignc ountries? when I was in high school and took a school trip to Greece and Turkey, the tour operator had the restaurants fix us "American" food which they interpreted as braised beef and potatoes almost every day. Eating Greek food in Greece was so much better.

You poor kids!

Hi Tom, My family is moving to the SF Bay area at the end of the month and I'd love to get your opinion on where we should go to eat in our new town? We've enjoyed many places in the DC area thanks to your recommendations!

Definitely, try to get in to Coqueta, one of my best meals of all of 2013.  Also very good: Rich Table, Zuni Cafe (a veteran, but terrific), State Bird Provisions, Bar Agricole (for drinks and small plates), Bar Tartine and Aziza.

Oh boy -- did someone eat rusty nails for breakfast today? Poster, I don't hate you but I do find your writing to lack a certain je ne sais quoi. But seriously folks -- let Tom do his job. He is paid to have an opinion. He expresses it eloquently and respectfully. If you don't agree with his opinion, at least tell him so respectfully (we already know you lack eloquence).

I published my critic's criticism of me in part because 1) it's only fair that opinions other than my own be shared here, but also because 2) I can point to the transcripts when chefs complain to me about their sometimes-rough treatment here: Hey, I tell them, I take abuse here, too and it's MY chat and I control the questions!

 

(Smile.)

Well the laws are of little use if the restaurant no longer exists. I'm looking at you Roberto Donna.

Ah, but he has several new restaurants (see above)!

We had French visitors just before Thanksgiving, so I cooked our traditional Thanksgiving dinner at home. They were thrilled. They got to see an American holiday celebration and they got to eat in someone's home (remember the French entertain at restaurants and eating in someone's home is a BIG deal, suggesting close friendship). We have been friends with one of these French people for 40 years, but the others were new to us (friends of the French friend).

You rock.

When parsing restaurant/patron issues, do you ever get the urge (as advice columnists must) to pound your head into the keyboard and scream "This would all be okay if everyone could just be human!" Or, perhaps, the issue is that we're all too human.

You're reading my mind!

 

I can't tell you how many times I start investigating someone's dining problem and end up not being able to write about it because what the customer says and what the restaurant says are two very different stories. Or, a diner leaves out significant details (a "few minutes" late is actually 45 minutes).

 

We all need to be a little nicer, a tad more patient, a bit more forgiving.

"El Bandoneon" in the new, trendy downtown part of Cancun--great atmosphere, service and a locals fav. Nearby also are "Du Mexique" and "Peter's." "La Habichuela- Downtown" and "La Habichuela - Sunset" (in the hotel zone) are memorable and always great food.

Reader to the rescue!

Eating at local restaurants to taste the local cuisine is one of my favorite things about travel. I can't imagine going all the way to a foreign country only to seek out "American" food for meals.

Although, it can be fun to see how other countries whip up  different cuisines. I'll never forget my guide in Beijing taking me to a Mexican watering hole for margaritas, chips and ... is this supposed to be guacamole?  We Americans had a good laugh, at any rate.

Pete's New Haven Style APizza (in Columbia Heights) is wonderful. Great food and great delivery service. I've had their pizza, pasta and salad and it's superb each time.

Good to know. Thanks.

tom - what is your go to dish to make - easy and quick but always good?

Coconut cake, made using a recipe I got from my predecessor, Phyllis Richman.  It's a super-moist white sponge cake with a lattice of shaved coconut, brown sugar and butter melted under a broiler. Heady stuff.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for sharing the hour with me. See you again Jan. 22.

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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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