Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema discusses the DC dining scene

Oct 26, 2011

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 -- My dearest friend, whom I'm leaving next month to live in another part of the country, needs a nice restaurant bar downtown this week where the decibels are low (she's over 50) for a first date. I *can't* let her down, but I'm drawing a blank. Please help me! -- A frequent contributor to this chat for many years, one of whose strongest regrets about leaving D.C. is that I won't have this Weds. chat to look forward to anymore.

How can I turn down a question like that?  (So sweet!)

 

"Nice" restaurant bars tend not to specialize in quiet, but I have a few ideas. One of them is the intime lounge to the left of the lobby at the Jefferson Hotel, but it may be too tiny for comfort on a first date. Other watering holes include Fiola and 701, both in Penn Quarter,  Vidalia downtown and Blue Duck Tavern in the West End.

 

Chatters, feel free to chime in. Poster, thanks for the kind words and best of luck with your transition.

 

It's been a newsy week and it's only Wednesday. Have you heard that Rob Weland became the new chef at Cork Wine Bar? That Rays: The Steaks East River is closed, reportedly for renovation? That Evening Star Cafe is also getting a makeover, along with a new chef?

 

Let's begin!

Hi Tom, I enjoyed reading your Dining Guide over the weekend. Thanks so much for all the work you put into it. I just wanted to mention that it's not just "insiders" that can get an order of zeppole at Graffiato. When we were there a few weeks ago, I asked about them and our server put in an order for us. We aren't famous movers-and-shakers or even regulars. I know that they make a limited quantity of the zeppole, but it appears that you just have to ask for them. They were fantastic, btw - as was the rest of our meal.

I don't believe that was always the case. At any rate, the big difference between the dessert the VIPs get and the donuts everyone else receives at Graffiato is the price:  The treat is gratis for the former.

Hi Tom, I know you answer a lot of questions like this, but I need your absolute knowledge of the best, new(ish) joints in town. A dear friend of mine is celebrating her birthday next week and would like to try something new for a dinner for two. Obviously the tight deadline means Minibar, Komi, and such exclusive restaurants as those are out. She's adventurous and has probably eaten at most of the new and fashionable restaurants in town. Can you give us a recommendation for a restaurant with a little bit of a scene, great food, nice but not $150/pp, preferably in NW? Thanks!

Has your friend dined at Jose Andres' pop-up restaurant in the former Cafe Atlantico space, America Eats Tavern?  It won't be around forever; I notice reservations on OpenTable aren't quite as tough as when the edible museum opened on the Fourth of July. I'm also eager to return to Fabio Trabocchi's Italian restaurant, Fiola, also in Penn Quarter. I reviewed the place in July and had a few reservations, but I believe some of the major wrinkles have since been ironed out.

If requested, have/would you ever have lunch or dinner with a chef? Who usually dines with you.. Friends, others in the business?

I try to keep the people I cover at a distance, not because I wouldn't enjoy breaking bread with them, but because I think I would lose my ability to be impartial in covering them.

 

My regular companions -- there are about 40 of them -- include friends, family, colleagues, friends of friends, the occasional interesting person I meet at parties.  It may come as a surprise that I tend not to eat much with people who also cover the food scene. 

A vegetarian asked on Monday about what to get at Bibiana. Do order the risotto, but mention you're a vegetarian and they'll swap the chicken stock for vegetable.

Ah, good to know! Thanks for writing.

I think Bombay Club is as good as Rasika. It deserves spot in top restaurant of DC.

Bombay Club can be really good, but it is a different style of Indian restaurant than the fashion-conscious Rasika. I enjoy them both, but if I had to choose between the two, I'd rather dine at the younger place.

Tom -- I assume this isn't your doing, but who is this editor who makes Editor's Picks on the website? I went along with a family member's plan to eat at Scion on P Street last week because it was an "Editor's Pick" on the site. I did not see a review from you and I was skeptical because I hadn't ever heard anything about it, but figured it couldn't be too awful since it had some sort of endorsement from the Post. In fact it was pretty awful -- every meal on our table left little pools of grease on the plate, and the lobster ruben I ordered was basically a fishy grilled cheese. Maybe it was just an off night but can't imagine anyone would "pick" that place in a city full of so much good food.

Generally, restaurants that have been awarded at least two stars are eligible for an Editor's Pick nod. Scion is obviously not in that realm, but it did get a favorable review for its bar scene, hence the check.

In your opinion how does DC rank when compared to cities like New York and LA for the diversity of cuisines?

We're talking apples and kumquats here. For starters,  NYC and LA have the advantage of much bigger populations than ours. And the latter market ranks among the world's best for international cooking -- Thai, Mexican, Chinese -- in its many regional forms.

 

I'd put DC in the lower half of any Top 10 list of cities in the U.S. for restaurants. Among our advantages:  all the good, sometimes ground-breaking work done by Jose Andres, Michel Richard, Vikram Sunderam, Todd Thrasher, Johnny Monis, Patrick O'Connell ... the list goes on.

 

 

I thought Le Bar at the Sofitel was very nice and quite relaxing.

Yep, it's quiet, but I'm not sure I would venture their for sustenance.

As a Korean, I was appalled to read that President Obama entertained South Korean President Lee Myung Bak at Woo Lae Oak in Tyson's Corner. While most people think of Woo Lae Oak as being upscale and elegent, in the local Korean community it is known as being an overpriced, needlessly-dressed-up version of the much more reasonably-priced and authentic places in nearby Annandale. What really raised my eyebrow was the fact that he took a KOREAN head of state to restaurant. I've understood him to have pretty good taste in local restaurants, but I really think he missed the mark on this one. What is your take?

I, too, was surprised by the WH pick of a routine Korean restaurant.  Han Gang, among other places in Northern Virginia, would have made a much better impression.

You aren't barred from the chat just because you don't live here. You can still write in about the good places in your new city.

By all means!

Walking by last night, I noticed the posted menu listed a dish made from "spring vegetables." It's Halloween, folks--past time to replace spring dishes with food appropriate to autumn. Or maybe you just need to poke whoever is responsible for replacing the menu in the little box next to the door. I was on my way to Sticky Rice in the early evening, but still open to alternatives. A fall menu might have changed my mind.

It's all in the details, right? Atlas Room, take note!

Am delighted that my daughter's elementary-school cafeteria will be serving a "harvest meal" one day next month, listing all the local farms that will provide the squash, potatoes, apples, turkeys ... Here's to raising dining consciousness in the young!

Very cool. What's the name of the school, please?

Our beloved and wonderful Grandmother will be turning 100 soon. She lives in Arlington and we would like to take her out to an earlish dinner to celebrate. We would like to stay in Arlington, if possible. Cost is not a factor, but we would like a quiet restaurant, that is wheelchair accessible, that perhaps has a private room? She loves to eat, but sticks mostly to Italian and American type comfort foods. [She is the most amazing cook!] So, anything along those lines would be greatly appreciated. I hope I didn't ask for too much, but she is such a special lady and we aren't really familiar with Arlington. Thanks so much Tom!

I have a special spot for grandmothers turning 100. One of mine was fortunate to have seen that happen to her.

 

I wish your request had fewer restrictions. I'd suggest Rustico for comfort food, but the restaurant is extremely loud as the night wears on. Same for Liberty Tavern. I haven't eaten there in a few years, but Willow in Ballston has its fans, as well as a private dining area and relative peace in the dinig room.

Hi Tom, We have a friend who we'd like to take out to dinner as a thank you and she's a vegetarian. I was hoping for something with a specific vegetarian focus. Do you have any suggestions either by Chinatown, Capitol Hill or U Street? Thanks!

Not sure how much you want to spend, but if you want to be really generous, you should consider Elizabeth's Gone Raw, located in a townhouse on L St. NW.  It's not just vegetarian, it's vegan, and nothing is cooked beyond 115 degrees.

You have to remember the Secret Service has to take into account security and quickly accessible exit plans, not necessarily food as a first thought. Just saying.

Right. But Han Gang is right off Little River Turnpike and has a good-sized parking lot, as I recall.

Corduroy? Lincoln is not quiet but it is a great date place (things to share...). You can ask for a table by the window (quieter) and go earlier or eat outside (which is actually pretty quiet) if the weather is nice.

Corduroy is indeed muted, but my last dinner there, pre-dining guide, was not up to Tom Power's usual high standards.  His menu appears not to have changed much and the food felt ... tired.  As for Lincoln, another option is to sit in the car-size white booths in back, which are *relatively* more peaceful than elsewhere in the restaurant. But you have to land those perches early.

Not really a question, but wanted to share my experiences at the new restaurant last night. They had a 30 min wait for 2 on a Tuesday night, which I should have expected, but it didn't really end up being a problem as we were easily entertained at their bar upstairs with the bocce ball courts. Food, service, atmosphere - everything was fabulous! My bf claims he doesn't like oysters, but he sure ate them up when we got one of their platters to start :)

That's good to know about Jeff Black's latest in Logan Circle.  The restaurant doesn't take reservations, but instead, gives you a numbered ticket when you walk in. The numbers alight on boards that are posted both in the restaurant proper and the bar next door. Fun idea.

It's likely that Woo Lae Oak was the only place that they could get enoguh time and space at, and it may have been on somewhat short notice. It could also be that the Korean President requested it specifically for whatever rason. Just saying, it's not so simple when dealing with heads of state issues. Also, if the person who was asking about Flemming's still reads the chats, use the certificate. Flemming's is the upscale end of the OSI behemoth (Outback, Carrabba's etc etc etc) and they do a very nice job with the basic gourmet steakhouse fare. Not gonna be a ton of specials, but they do what they do nicely and the drinks are good and strong. No weaklings from their bars.

Thanks for writing in.

Sowams Elementary, Barrington, R.I. (I wonder, when's the school cafeteria quahog festival?)

Go, Sowams Elementary!

It was so loud, I am never going back, which is too bad. For Italian comfort, she probably would love http://www.tuttobeneitalian.com/ It looks like a cliché, but food is pretty good.

Tutto Bene is probably bestknown for the saltenas it makes on weekends, but thanks for the additional idea.

Friends from out of town want a good seafood choice - probably a bit more upscale than Tackle Box but not as pricey as Black Salt. Hanks, Pesce, other options?

I'm not high on Hank's, alas, but Pesce is a good idea and so is Johnny's Half Shell on the Hill.

Tom - loved your Dining Guide, as always, but how about focusing the next one on dining out for lunch? For some of us workerbees, lunch time is the best time to sample the wares of our local restaurants, but many establishments in your dining guide aren't open for lunch, offer different lunch menus, don't have their top-line chefs working for lunch, or may just not be very good at (or very interested in) getting diners in and out in one hour or so. What about a lunch-eaters guide?

I like the idea, but the reality is, a lot of the restaurants I featured in the guide *are* open for lunch and have their best cooks in place during that shift.  (Think Rasika, Jaleo, Palena, Vidalia, Sushi Taro, Oval Room, etc.) And don't forget, my Weekend collegue Justin Rude devotes a column to your favorite subject every other Friday. It's called Lunch Break.

Hi Tom, Where would you recommend to eat after a tour of the White House? Thanks!!

Cafe du Parc is good and close. As is Central Michel Richard.

I haven't heard you mention Marcel's lately. Zagat rated it best in DC. How do you feel about it?

I like Marcel's enough to give it three stars and to put it in my latest dining guide.

Tom, I'm getting burned out with the usual suspects in the DC dining scene. What places out there are worth checking out for something new?

Have you given the new ShopHouse a whirl for fast Asian?  Nostos for Greek in Tysons Corner? The aforementioned Pearl Dive Oyster Palace for seafood?

Tom - What I would love to see in future Dinning Guides (and hopefully a quick blurb right now!) is a narrative from you on what has changed, who's in, who's out, new trends, worn out trends, etc. For instance, I'd love to know who dropped off the list from last year. Or better yet, who has been great for the last few years but now has suddenly lost it. It's easy to spot the newcommers, but harder to tell who has slipped. And maybe some general analysis: "There are tons of great Italian places in DC" or "There are tons of Italian places in town, but I'd only eat at two of them" I'd love to see more those general comments appear. Thanks!

Thanks for the feedback. I wish there was more time to fully address all your questions, but here's the short version.

 

1) Among the restaurants missing from this year's guide: Minibar in DC and Charleston in Baltimore

 

2) Last year, food trucks were the big news, so I included one of my favorite meals on wheels, Red Hook Lobster Truck. This year, I noticed more good food being served in unusual locations, hence the inclusion of two purveyors operating out of gas stations, Fast Gourmet in DC and R & R Taqueria in Elkridge, Md.

 

3) Lots of inexpensive newcomers were added to this year's list (Ren's Ramen, ShopHouse, Pete's Apizza) and some of our better restaurants  (Oval Room, Vermilion, Et Voila!) got significant upgrades in terms of star ratings.  

 

My lunch date awaits me. See you back here, same time, same station, next Wednesday.  Thanks for joining me today.

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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 moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. His new video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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