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

Jan 09, 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.

Perhaps I'm cynical but a "Philanthro-Pub" like Cause sounds like a Portlandia sketch waiting to happen. Maybe they'll start bringing in poor people to stare at diners as they eat, so the bobos will feel adequately guilty over enjoying the luxuries of upper-middle-class life.

For real? I applaud the idea, not to mention the philosophy of the owners, who told me they realize Cause needs to aim high with its food and drink to compete with the considerable competition in the neighborhood.  The prices at Cause, by the way, are very reasonable. I'll be curious to see how much money the project raises for local charities a year from now, after Cause has been around awhile.

 

NEWS AT THE TOP OF THE HOUR

 

Gone from Equinox: “Karen Nicolas is no longer with us,” says owner Todd Gray of the 2012 Food & Wine Best Chef he hired to serve as executive chef of his restaurant near the White House.

 

Nicolas, who resigned over the Christmas holidays, cooked for 15 months at Equinox, which received a 1 ½ star review from the Washington Post in October. 

 

Gray says “a conflict of  (management) style” and “culinary differences” led to the “mutual separation.” The restaurateur waited to announce the news until after the new year in order for him to “regain the kitchen and get things at Equinox back on path the way I’ve done for 13 years.”

 

Does he plan to anoint a new No. 2 in his kitchen? Gray, once again the executive chef, hopes to name “a chef de cuisine from the ranks, but I don’t know who yet.”

 

Nicolas was originally hired to free up her employer so Gray could focus on outside projects, including a cookbook co-authored with his wife and fellow restaurateur, Ellen Kassoff Gray. “The New Jewish Table: Modern Seasonal Recipes for Traditional Dishes”  (St. Martins) is due to be published in March.

 

Good morning, gang. Lots of questions to get to this morning. Let's rock and roll.

Hello Tom! My birthday's coming up end of the month. I'm a real foodie/chowhund/gourmand! I've been to many places you've recommended; Komi, Cordory, Bibiana, Rasika, CityZen, Central, Vidalia, Oyamel, Woodberry Kitchen among many others. As you can see, I am very dedicated reader of yours. I LOVE a great steak tartare, crudo, and perfectly cooked (aka not overcooked) seafood. I'm a VERY adventurous eater. All suggestions will be greatly appreciated! Thank you for your work! On a different note, may I become your dining companion? I'm available to dine with you twice a month.

Lovely of you to ask, but my dance card is pretty full these days. Blame it on some of the best neighbors anyone could ask for. (Hi, Todd! Hi, Joe! Hi, Todd's dad the dentist!)

 

Your restaurant list is (mostly) terrific. If you haven't been yet, you should add Izakaya Seki off U St., Pabu in Baltimore, Ashby Inn in Paris, Va. and Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan to the lineup.

Tom, where can a group of about 30 -40 adults getting away from the kids for the evening go for dinner in Arlington/McLean? A private room would be nice but not required. Decent food is a must.

Basically, you want the restaurant to yourselves, right? Or at least take over half the joint?

 

In Arlington, my first pick would be the accommodating Liberty Tavern; in McLean, I'd send you to Bistro Vivant for French fare.  Bonus: both kitchens do better than "decent."

Restaurant Week coming up reminds me that many excellent restaurants offer a reasonably priced (e.g., $35) pre-fixe three course dinner for early diners (typically need to order by 6:30) all year round. Examples are Oval Room, Tosca, 701 and Ris, but I'd love to see a list of all the options at the better rated restaurants, not necessarily just those near a theater. And how does one tip on a discounted pre-fixe meal? Thank you.

I was about to add 1789 to the list of good restaurants offering pre-theater scripts, but ... the Georgetown restaurant stopped offering one! 

 

Elisir on 11th St. NW does a pre-show menu. So does Equinox near the White House. Same for  Plume at the Jefferson hotel and the recently-reviewed Westend Bistro in the West End.

Hi Tom, Do you have any restaurant recommendations for a special birthday dinner in Boston? Wife and I are going up this weekend. Thanks!

Not sure what your budget or tastes are, but I had great fun eating at Coppa, Menton and Hungry Mother a year or so ago. The trio of restaurants were reviewed in my Boston-themed Postcard from Tom.  Chatters, feel free to weigh in with additional ideas.

Tom! This is news about Jeff Black opening a restaurant in Takoma Park is so great! I read the Going out Guru's article, but what more can you tell us? My husband and I just moved to the area this year and while we love our house, we sorely miss the dining options of our old DC 'hoods. It would be so lovely to have a place with a decent wine selection where you might actually want to linger over dinner. Thanks for any news you have!

I didn't withold anything in my piece on the restaurateur's future restaurant on Laurel Ave. in Takoma Park. In short,  Danny Wells will be the chef, as well as a partner with his employer; the yet-to-be-named dining room with include two spots for drinks and a raw bar. Who-hoo!

Last week's discussion of kids dining out reminded me of a very funny dining expirience I had at Chef Geoff's several years ago. My parents were in town and we were out to dinner. Across the room, a party was seated that included a member of the Senate Democratic leadership. My parents and I were pretty excited about this 'celebrity' sighting, but our bubble was burst when a group of 6 boyscouts and their troop leader were seated at the table next to us. We all agreed, "There goes our nice dinner." Fast forward an hour, and the children next to us had completed a delightful, polite meal (their leader later told us they were working on table manners). The Senator's table, on the other hand, had too much to drink and were loudly laughing, clinking spoons to their glasses, shouting, etc. - completely disturbing our dinner. I guess that old adage about the book and its cover is right sometimes!

Love it! Thanks for taking the time to write.

Writing to share my own impressions of Nage, the subject of your First Bite column today, based on a visit last month. Like you, I was impressed by the work of the current chef. His simplification of preparations is particularly commendable. No longer are dishes marred by inclusion of extraneous ingredients, a particular problem under his predecessor. Nevertheless, there was definitely a disconnect between our impressions of the cooking and those of our dining experience as a whole. I was less taken than you by the renovation of the dining room. True, it no longer looks like a coffee shop. But it's still not particularly gracious or stylish for a place serving entrees in the $25 range. Tables were crammed too closely together (someone trying to squeeze into the next table almost caused my spouse's cocktail to topple) and the room was quite noisy. Service was quite undistinguished; food arrived slowly and our server was inattentive (forgetting to give us bread, among other miscues). Although we enjoyed our meals, we did not leave Nage eager to return. There are too many nearby establishments that offer a better experience for the money.

I'm sorry to hear about your sour experience with Nage, which has really blossomed under chef Miles Vaden. I could make a habit of his three-course tasting menu, a really good value in the neighborhood.  Most recently, I sat in a (roomy) booth rather than at a table there, and had a terrific server. But I'm afraid I was spotted that night.

 

My one food complaint from an earlier meal was a soup that was served less than hot. And someone needs to be more vigilant about seating folks faster.

 

Has anyone else been in recently?

Hi Tom - I'm looking for a good, casual restaurant in the Dupont-ish area (includes Logan, AdMo, West End). It's been a long week and I have an early flight on Saturday morning, so I'm looking for something tasty but too fancy or too much of a scene. I know that's vague, but I'm blanking. Any suggestions? Thanks!

My go-to in Dupont Circle these days is the charming Greek outpost, Mourayo, although the cozy Al Tiramisu always makes me a little happier, too.  Neither is a "scene;" both serve honest food.

Hi Tom, Thank you for your wonderful advice. I used the fall dining guide to narrow down my Restaurant Week choices, and I'm having a difficult time making my final restaurant selection, which is between Vidalia and Vermilion. I have been to both before, but it has been a while so I would really appreciate your recommendation!

Both are terrific restaurants, and it looks as if Tony Chittum is staying on a little longer at Vermilion now, while the chef waits to open the Iron Gate Inn on N St. 

 

Ask yourself if you want southern and dressy (Vidalia) or American and cozy (Vermilion). Also, which is closer to where you live?

Hi Tom, my parents are visiting in February and we are planning on hitting one of the museums near the mall. Any suggestions for a Saturday brunch around there? Somewhere that does something besides eggs benedict would be great. I'm considering The Source's dim sum brunch.

The dim sum brunch at the Source is some of the best Chinese food in the region. Go for it! Alternately, I never tire of the Middle Eastern mezze at the airy Zaytinya nearby.

Hi Tom, one of my NY resolutions was to be less curmudgeonly about the issue of children misbehaving in nice restaurants. But the missive in last week's chat lifted the veil off my equanimity (to paraphrase: "my sister just had a kid and doesn't have any babysitters - should she stay home for 6 years?"). People, please. You chose to have children. Bless the little darlings, for they will be subsidizing my Social Security checks in 20 years. But just because you are now saddled with those 3 year-old bundles of joy, you are not entitled to bring them with you everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean restaurants where adults go to have an adult experience. And I mean family-style restaurants where adults also go and where adults have a right not to be assaulted (aurally or otherwise) by the screeches and running around of your adorable little offspring while you ignore them. So don't give me a dirty look if I expect you to mind your manners and those of your precious progeny.

After last week's chat, several participants asked me to discontinue the kids-in-restaurants conversation -- forever. I can't promise that, but let's let this post stand as the first and last such point for the rest of the hour.

Please can we stop with the short names for neighborhoods? AdMo? Really? Stop please.

Read more like a text, eh?

Love your chats, Tom! So far, my boyfriend and I have dinner restaurant week reservations at Masa 14 and Sushi Taro. We have two because there is a chance I won't be able to make one due to work travel, so needed a plan B, but maybe we'll end up going to both! Are these good choices? Any other you would add into the mix? Should we replace Masa 14 with somewhere else? Thanks!

I'd replace the Masa 14 reservation with something else.  Is it a Logan Circle place you're looking for, or a pan-Asian one?  If Logan Circle, check out Cork, which is putting out some really nice small plates these days.

You didn't answer his question. " And how does one tip on a discounted pre-fixe meal? Thank you." –

Oops. Sorry about that. I tip a minimum of 20 percent, maybe a bit more if the service is especially good.

I was looking to take my boyfriend out to a nice Sushi dinner for his birthday next month, and your review of Makoto in 07 caught my eye. Have you been there since? Is it still a great recommendation?

Makoto is a serious restaurant with a set menu that tends not to change much. I like the style (but not the rigidity) on occasion. Are you looking for a little more enery with your raw fish? Try Sushiko, Kushi or Sushi Taro.

I was amused to recognize my husband's comments on our experience last month at Nage and can add that at that same meal, I was also served an otherwise delicious soup that was "less than hot." And the missing bread might not have bothered us as much if the waiter had not explicitly told me it was on its way.

Geez, Nage, help us help you!

We'll be dining at Rasika (West End) for the first time later this month. What's the dress code? Any other tips?

Business casual is fine for Rasika. I've seen all types of dress there, however.  ( You don't need a jacket, but I wouldn't wear gym clothes, either.) Be sure to 1) order a cocktail -- the drinks program matches the food -- and 2) try the silken black cod, one of the Indian kitchen's hit dishes.

For the special birthday dinner, Craigie on Main in Cambridge or Ten Tables in Jamaica Plain or Cambridge.

Yes and yes.

Not a traditional brunch menu, but I always enjoy the breakfast selection at Teaism. Their chai is wonderful. And you can get a salty oat cookie as you walk out the door.

I'm a big fan of its cilantro scrambled eggs and salmon myself.

Question about the allocation of donations--do diners get to choose which of the four causes their funds go to or do they vote for a cause and the charity with the most votes gets the entire amount? I like the idea--a restaurant version of Paul Newman's generous idea.

When the bill comes, diners can check off which of the four charities they wish to donate profits to.

I live about a block from Nage and was there about 2 weeks ago. The food was great, but truly, the service leaves much to be desired. Our waiter was genial enough, but inattentive. I had also attempted to go for brunch about a month ago, and actually walked out to go elsewhere b/c I stood in the entrance of the mostly empty restaurant for literally ten minutes before anyone came over to acknowledge me, at which point I promptly canceled my reservation and left. Please Nage, retrain your staff or hire servers who care about customers!

I hope someone from Nage is reading, and heeding, this post. And the one above.

Tom, have you considered filtering out questions from people who describe themselves as "gourmands"?

Hey, this is an equal opportunity picnic!

Interesting concept but I dont like their charities so I wont eat there. Maybe next month if the charities the Eddy the Eagle Program, The Wounded Warriors Fund, and Ducks Unlimited I might consider going.

Well, the owners do plan on swapping in new charities periodically, so you might get lucky there.

Do you ever watch Top Chef?

Never. In fact, I watch very little food-themed TV.

 

I'd much, much rather read a book or do something more useful with my time. A lot of that stuff is pretty repetitive/stupid/demeaning. Plus, I'm tired of all these (mostly) young chefs who strive to become famous rather than concentrate on being good cooks.  That goes for food writers, by the way.

When is this salted dessert thing going to end?

Not anytime soon says (hopes?) this fan of salt on his caramel.

Hi Tom - Have you tried Hanoi House on 14th St and if so, can you recommend it?

I've been there several times. Stay tuned for a preview of the Vietnamese newcomer in next week's Food section.

you listed some of your faves earlier, but any other great options for restaurant week. I've made reservations at the oval room and also Woodward Table. Are those worth keeping?

Oval Room, YES; Woodward Table ... let's just say, your mileage may vary.

Some friends moved out to Germantown and I want to treat them to a good dinner. It seems that the place is chock full of chains. Is there anything out of the ordinary out there, no type of food refused.

Not a chain (and good) out thar yonder: Sabai Sabai Simply Thai.

Tom, we had the chance to take our kids to Little Serow a couple Satrudays ago. We were in line to make the first seating, and the whole experience was just fantastic. Our 12- and 15-year old sons loved the vibe and the food. The younger one ate all but the spiciest dish, which left the rest of us howling (but regretting that we hadn't packed the leftovers). Johnny Monis really has a good thing going there. And we undertsand the "no reservations" policy -- otherwise you'd had to call at 10 am 30 days before and you would be nable to get through and get a table. Happy New Year, Tom.

I've never seen kids in Little Serow. But good for your boys!

You "don't like" them? They aren't partisan - they're just four charities. You'd actively withhold money when it doesn't actually cost you anything other than the food you're going to eat?

I think the poster was trying to make funny.

But were they "passionate"? That's supposed to make up for a multitude of sins these days.

I hear you. Enthusiasm is good, but I like when it comes with sides of efficiency and expertise.

Happy new year Tom! When are publishing cheap eats? I like to try some new stuff. Thanks

Wrong guy. Mr. Kliman's chat is on Tuesday. ;)

Tom, thank you, thank you, thank you, for voicing what I've been thinking. I dislike those Food shows for the same reasons you outlined in your response. My one exception is "America's Test Kitchen," but that's actually about cooking, it's not a forum for egos on parade (except, perhaps, for the delightfully quirky Mr. Kimball).

Of course there are exceptions, and Chris's program is one of them. Give me an old Julia Child video any day over most of the junk now playing!

Trummer's On Main also offers a three course meal on Sunday evenings. I just tried it this past Sunday, and it was a very good experience. The service was wonderful. I had delicious salmon entree, scallop appetizer, and bread pudding (skip the trio of brie). They also offer a "bucket list" of wines for $5 a glass.

Nice.

Have you been to Ceiba recently? I went over the weekend and was excited to try something fun and different (for me!). Unforunately, while the food was enjoyable, the service was not good nor was the atmosphere. The server barily greeted my boyfriend and I and offered no suggestions/recommendations or any friendly thoughts until I asked. Once I asked for recommendations he launched into what seemed like a prepared, but disinterested explanation of the menu. Messed up a cerviche order and generally just didn't seem interested in being helpful or friendly. Typical for Ceiba (or any of the other affiliated restaurants) or just an off night? For what it's worth, the bartender at the bar was excellent, as were the Caipirinhas!

Before I reviewed the new Fuego Cocina, I went back to all the fellow Passion Food Hospitality restaurants for a look-see. Ceiba was the clunker of the lot. Everything about the Latin American restaurant seemed fatigued.

I cannot resist watching Jacques Pepin. (and similar shows, mostly on PBS. But especially Jacques. And Julia.) Other food themed tv, I agree with you. I wish we had more tv about FOOD and less about competitive food.

I think you sell part of your soul by doing a lot of TV. And not a little dignity.

Not eating somewhere because you don't support the charities makes total sense. The owners have to realize the concept will turn some people off because they "don't like" the charities. People do this ALL THE TIME, it's called voting with your wallet. Not a new concept and people are entitled to their opinions about not liking things.

You said it better than I did. Thanks.

If you don't really follow the celebrity chef thing, then you probably haven't heard about the recent Gawker story with the NYC chef?

It's not that I don't follow chef and restaurant coverage -- I do! -- but that I don't pay much attention to the stuff on TV.

From a Bostonian, I also suggest Ken Oringer's Clio and its counterpart sashimi bar, Uni. Truly fine food and service.

I second both ideas.

what to order?

(Uh, does no one read reviews anymore?)

 

(Rant dismissed.)

 

All good: oyster pan roast, sweetbreads on waffles, caramel cake ...

Kazan, near the Giant, has a private room. Not sure it would hold 30 however. Last week a reader complained about the lack of good restaurants in McLean. Offhand I can think of 3 good sushi places, good Turkish (Kazan), Persian (Amoo Kabob), and French. Several decent Italian places. These places may not be fancy-good, but they are certainly worth the money and effort. Especially if you don't want to hit the Beltway at dinner hour. Us natives still miss Three Pigs.

Thanks for the additions to the list.

Any customer is better than no customer to the server's bottom line. If early-bird discounts are offered, it's to get customers into the restaurant during slow periods. So you should view yourself as a "+" for the staff rather than a "-". No need to tip extra because you're getting a "special" aimed to get you in the door during a time when the staff is underutilized.

I concur.

 

Gang, it's lunch time. Thanks for joining me for another hour of food chat. See you next week, same time & site!

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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