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

Oct 30, 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.

Wow, Tom, this week's write-up of Harriman's is the most negative thing you've written since the cringe-worthy 0.5 star review of Grace's Mandarin many years ago. I believe Harriman's is closer than several of your 40 Faves (the Inn, Trummer's, and Woodberry), so why didn't you do a formal review? The Travel section doesn't seem like the right place for your disdaining 0 or 0.5 star review of such a pretentious place.

The Travel editor asked me to look at Harrimans as part of a package in which my Post colleague Andrea Sachs tried out the lodging and amenties.  I think the idea made sense; a large part of travel is food, right?

 

Has anyone from today's audience been to the resort? I'm curious to hear from you.

 

Good rainy morning, everyone!  Bring on your questions and comments. What have you been eating (and liking)?  What pressing food-related issues are on your mind?

I read (and loved) your fall dining guide in detail and understand completely the half star reduction applied to Range, but wondered why other places like Daikaya who don't seem to have the same negative pushback and mostly great reviews would drop the same on your scale compared to your recent review?

In the case of the Japanese tavern, a few lackluster dishes resulted in my down-grading its rating from 3 stars to 2 1/2. They included gouda-stuffed peppers and one-note meat-filled cabbage. Service wasn't quite as swift as I originally enountered, either (a spoon came minutes after a soup was set down).  Daikaya is also incredibly loud, but that's been the case since it opened.

Hi Tom A few weeks ago we exchanged ideas about which restaurants I could take my parents, who are visiting from France, to. In the mean time we have been to Diplomate, Mintwood place and Kapnos... they all have been great. Last night we went to Makoto... where many rate restaurants based on food, ambiance, service and price... the one component that can never be taken out of the equation should be the food. What were served yesterday was an utter disappointment. My father wanted to leave after the second dish, as he correctly predicted what was about to follow... It was an unpleasant evening to say the least. So... my question is, which restaurant have you been to in the past week or two that was very good and that you know won't disappoint? Type of cuisine doesn't matter, nor price. Thank you very much, Charles

I'm surprised to hear of your disappointment with the food at Makoto. Could you elaborate on what you had there?

 

Consistency is one of the hardest details for a restaurant to ace from visit to visit. Buck's Fishing & Camping is a reassuring place for American cooking. I'm reviewing it for this Sunday's Magazine.  You might also consider Vidalia, Jeff Buben's southern restaurant downtown.  (Now there's something you can't get in France! )

Hi Tom! Question on the practice of reviews and anonymity, esp w/in WaPo. You go to great lengths (ignore the haters) to go undetected and get the same service everyone else does. while theatre critics are not only known, but fawned over - get their own press night, best seats in the house, don't have to pay or call for reservations...and the Post is even a Media Partner of many organizations...something that would never fly in your world. Honest question - why is that?

Theater critics all see the same show, from basically the same general vantage point.  A director or actor can't change what he or she does to play to individual reviewer.

 

Restaurant critics, on the other hand, generally go to a place several times before writing it up, because no two visits are exactly alike.  Waiters change. Specials change.  If they are known to staff, food critics can experience a completely different restaurant than the one unknowns experience: better table, better service, cleaner or bigger portions, etc.

 

That's the very short answer to a complex question.

Tom, I had to laugh at your experience of attempting to order a Sazerac at the Salamander. A few years ago, I was at the Hilton in New Orleans for a conference, and I joined friends for drinks at the hotel bar (before heading out to better New Orleans spots). I ordered a Sazerac cocktail, assuming that even the Hilton should be able to handle a true New Orleans drink. After getting a perplexed look from the waiter--and a request to spell it, please--I got a highball glass full of what tasted like straight whiskey--and sure enough, on the bill, it said, "Jack Daniels." No, they didn't even serve me Sazerac rye. I found the whole experience kind of amusing---but that was a few years ago, and I'm astonished that a supposedly high-end bar wouldn't be able to serve a classic American cocktail like a Sazerac! What's your take--do you think that there's a higher bar (no pun intended) for cocktail service nowadays?

I was surprised. I mean, a Sazerac is a classic drink and should be in every mixologist's repertoire.  If I'm not mistaken, the gentleman at Salamander who delivered the faux Sazerac -- long minutes after everyone elses' drinks were brought out -- was a bar tender there.

For people who feel the need to bring their own cake, The Standard (now the Garden District) was totally fine with us doing this last spring. It probably helps that they don't serve dessert (and that we cut a few slices for the staff!)

Good to know, and it doesn't surprise me that the laidback Garden District doesn't charge extra, especially since it doesn't serve sweets, as you point out. Still, it's always a good idea to call and request permission and not assume anything. 

I'm curious as to why Bistro Provence isn't one of your favorites. I've followed Cam around the area for 35 years. Granted the service at BP isn't the best, but the garden is lovely and Cam's cooking is still among the best anywhere.

I like Bistro Provence, too, which I featured in my 2013 spring dining guide. But I felt there were other better French experiences I wanted to salute this season.

Tom, I'm craving a good ceviche. I had some excellent ceviche at La Canela in Rockville, but I was hoping to find something closer to Arlington or mid-town. Any thoughts?

The Mexican-themed Oyamel in Penn Quarter does a great job with raw fish and seafood salads; it even has its own ceviche bar. You might also want to check out the nearby Del Campo, which offers, among other appetizers,  salmon on buttery avocado on its Latin-leaning menu.

you mentioned in the oct. 18th weekend section that Fiola has a sibling, less expensive restaurant. Please let me know name of it. We love Fiola. Thanks

Fiola's offshoot is the breezier Casa Luca, featured in my recent fall dining guide.

Tom, I have a business colleague arriving from NYC Halloween night and we want to meet for dinner. He will be staying at the Four Seasons Hotel, but neither of us wants to spend as much money for dinner as we would pay at the Bourbon Steak. Would you please share your recommendations for a nice business dinner where an entree might be more in the $20-$30 range that is within walking distance of the Four Seasons?

I'd probably opt for something in the West End, a nice stroll from the hotel, either the Westend Bistro for contemporary American cooking or Rasika West End for terrific modern Indian fare.

Hi - a bit late in sending this in. A couple of weeks ago we arranged for an anniversary dinner for my brother and wife (w/out the infant in tow!) at Blue Duck Tavern. After reading the horrible story about Phyllis Richman and Kapnos we were a little nervous. Blue Duck couldn't have been more wonderful. They were incredibly nice and generous (I don't want to go into detail for fear that they will be bombarded with requests). I just had to call with credit card info and they took care of the rest (with 20% tip) with no issues whatsoever. It turned out to be the perfect gift for new parents who rarely get a night out and rarely at such a nice place. Great job Blue Duck Tavern! p.s. they had the crab cakes, short rib, and duck fat fries as well as several desserts. yum!

Take a bow, Blue Duck Tavern.  (My service stood out there as well on my last visit, just before the fall guide came out.)

Favorite Arlington restaurants right now? Clarendon area ideally

Let's see. I like Pupatella for its pizza, Delhi Club for casual Indian, Liberty Tavern for its American fare and Lyon Hall for its meaty dishes. That help?

Tom, Did I see you were in Cleveland this past weekend? Should we expect a Postcard or were you there for a social visit? If the latter, please do tell us what you thought, what you liked. As a native (East Side) Clevelander, but one who has been here for a decade and rarely ventures beyond my favorite childhood spots when home, I would love to hear the latest and greatest from you. Rumor has it Cleveland is a secret food hot stop!

I won't be devoting a Postcard to Cleveland, but I will likely write about at least one of the many places I visited there last week in a future Travel story.

 

My favorites meals were Fire Food & Drink for brunch, Sokolowksi's University Inn for Polish cooking and Spice Kitchen for farm-to-table food and great service.

 

The most interesting meal, though, took place at Greenhouse Tavern, decorated with bikes hanging from the ceiling and serving such wonders as roasted pig head and foie gras steamed clams.

Tom--Our third anniversary is coming up, and what is more, we are expecting our first child. I'd like to treat my wife to a weekend at either Ashby Inn or Goodstone Inn. What is your take on the restaurants at each, particularly given the new chef at Ashby Inn? Thank you!

I have not tasted the new chef's cooking at the Ashby Inn, but everything I've heard about Goodstone of late is that it remains, even under its new chef, over-priced and only OK.  So Ashby Inn gets my vote,  just because of its track record.

What would you do if an order is close to, but not quite, what you were expecting? I've ordered hamburgers for brunch recently at two different 2.5 star restaurants. At one, my burger was served medium-well (emphasis on the well) when I asked for it medium. At another, it was served medium but clearly had been pressed down to make it cook faster, resulting in a non-juicy patty. It seems like such a waste to send it back, yet still a minor disappointment since I eat at both regularly and they both deserve the 2.5 stars you've rated them. What say you?

Next time, when you tell the waiter you prefer your hamburger cooked "medium," also share with him or her that the patty was overcooked/juiceless the last time you ordered it there.  ( It's a subtle way to tell the server, "I'll be watching!")

As always, Tom, thank you for taking our questions. In reading your review of the Salamander Resort's Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill, I was taken aback when I read chef Chris Edwards had trained at El Bulli in Spain. One would think he would have used some of the innovative, groundbreaking techniques learned a that world-famous gastronomic mecca and incorporated it into his own cooking. Did you ever have the opportunity to dine at El Bulli and write about it? If so, would it be possible to get a link to your article?

Honestly, I think modern Spanish food would be out of place at Harrimans. The problem I have with the restaurant is that even some of the most basic dishes are flawed or just plain boring. Salamander was built as a destination resort ; even if I lived in Middleburg, I don't think I'd return to the place, at least for the kind of cooking I had.

Tom--Will you be giving Casa Luca a longer review than what appeared in the Dining Guide any time in the near future? I'd like to hear more detail about your thoughts on it.

No. I feel I pretty much covered the spirit and the cooking of the place in my First Bite and subsequent mini-review of Fabio Trabocchi's latest outpost.

Hi Tom, Can you recommend a few restaurants near Metro Center where kids wouldn't be out of place, and where adults could enjoy a glass of wine/beer or two with dinner? I have a friend coming to town with his 3 kids and they're staying at the Mariott downtown. Thanks!

Try Mandu in Mt. Vernon Square, Brasserie Beck on 11th & K or Mio for Latin American cooking.

I was at DC Coast once and asked the bartender to make a Bijou. He scoffs snarkly at me and then says to the other bartender "is that a small dog or something?" - never went back by the way, and for the past 4 years I just make better cocktails at home anyway.

I can not tell you how many times I've asked for a daiquiri and the bar tender replies, "We don't have a blender."

I'm temporarily in Silver Spring while the house is renovated. Any inexpensive/moderate priced recommendations in this area? I enjoy all types of food.

Jackie's should be at the top of your list, followed by Ren's Ramen for soup, Mandalay for Burmese and Samantha's for Mexican/Salvadoran.

I'm going to the Inn next month for the first time in years, and was surprised when I looked online to see a menu that was almost identical to my last meal there. I'm a little disappointed...I loved my meal last time, but hoping for a bit more variety. I'm sure in a place like that many people want to come back for the dishes they fondly remember, but there has to me a happy medium.

Poor chefs. They can't win. Add new dishes and people complain; take away favorites, the same thing happens. (I'm just as guilty as any other diner, by the way. In my recent review of J & G Steakhouse, I wrote about how much I missed the one-time halibut with chilies and black beans.)

 

 

I know you're quite the fan of Zaytinya. Went there with the SO during RW and was horribly unimpressed (temperature issues with the food, incredibly pushy service--at one point, a waiter actually swooped a plate away as the fork with the last bite was in the air, as well as some flavor issues.) Both of us had been excited previously about visiting, but the experience left us cold. As such, advice, please: Try it again non-RW, or move onto, say, CityZen?

I'd give the Middle Easterm small plates purveyor another chance. I was there recently with a group and everybody raved.

 

Just have to add: RW  probably isn't the best time to judge a restaurant. Places get crushed during the promotion.

Tom, after a disappointing visit to Casa Luca on Friday night, I re-read your review in the Fall Dining Guide and found this: "Even if you don’t order dessert, sweets appear. With luck, they’ll be Maria’s favorite almond chews." We certainly did not receive any sweets. In fact, after being seated a half hour after our reservation, we couldn't even flag down our waiter to order a second round of drinks. They were out of at least four menu items (we couldn't help wondering if we'd been seated on time they would have had some left). The food was fine, but at that price point, we expected more. The bartender was great though, and very knowledgeable about the Italian craft beers on draft.

Thanks for the feedback.

'm not sure I understand, never having been to The Inn at Little Washington. Is there only one meal on the menu?

No. There are many dishes to choose from; the reader was complaining that they were all familiar to him/her based on an earlier visit.

Hi Tom, Thanks for hosting these weekly Q&A sessions. I find them to be very informative, and it is a great way for your readers to communicate with you. If you had to list one restaurant as your favorite, regardless of price and location, what would it be? If picking one is too difficult, how about your all-time top few? Thanks again for keeping us up-to-date on the best places to eat in the city.

The one restaurant I always make time for is Zuni Cafe in San Francisco.  The Mediterrean food is pure and perfect; you can smell the wood-roasted chicken from blocks away; the crowd is a great mix of bohemians, tourists, socialites and artists.  Whenever I eat there -- local oysters and tart margaritas are a tradition for me after landing -- I always want to be back living there.

Thanks for the Silver Spring recommendations! I once ordered an Old Fashioned, only to be told by the server that the bartender said he "ran out".

Ha!

Tom, I'd also add Laco Melza for Ethiopean and Kao Thai for the obvious.

Yes to Kao Thai. I'm afraid the Ethiopian choice is no longer an option.

Then I'm even more puzzled. Why doesn't he just go and order something different?

Original poster care to reply?

Do you have a favorite in DC? Could you pick one?

Honestly, my favorites change. They change with my mood, my appetite, my budget, the season, the company I'm with  ... what are you looking for?

Pet peeve here. We often go out to eat with another couple, sharing every dish we order. So often the kitchen sends out a plate with three items, like shrimp, that are hard to divide four ways, even after we've made it clear we are sharing. It is annoying! The other night I ordered an appetizer to have on the table when our guests arrived, and the server let me know it was only three pieces and offered to add a fourth (with a charge, and that's fine of course). Brilliant! I'd love to see that become standard practice! What do you think?

I think all you have to do is make clear your wish. If you're sharing everything, just ask the server for enough for everyone at the table to taste. Problem solved!

What kind of restaurant staff sneers at a customer? Was he trying to lose business?

Servers scoff at customers at their peril.

I'm looking to stock up on kitchen supplies, and have heard that restaurant supply stores offer good deals and quality equipment. Do you know of any in the area that accept customers who are not in the industry?

Chatters? You have 5 minutes to help out an audience member.

Tom -- Central has been one of your most often recommended restaurants. I haven't seen it havewnt seen it mentioned recently. Has something changed? Has Msr. Richard's time in NYC negatively impacted the bistro?

I feel like the kitchen is cooking in place these days *and* there are better sources for that style of cooking these days.

To clarify, they have a smallish menu...I went with a party of four and pretty much tried everything.

Gotcha.

Best Supply (or something like that) near the outstanding Litteri's in NE sells to the public.

Just in time! Thanks.

I've never been but for some reason I'm on their e-mail list: http://www.sterlingrestaurantsupply.com/outlet.

Another option. Thanks.

Ordered one and watched it being made because they are so often wrong. By the time it got to me it had lemon and lime wedges and sweet vermouth. It was made by one of our local beer mavens! I am keeping his secret shame.

Oh my.

How much does the cost of a specific dish impact your review of it? For example, my wife and I went to Baby Wale last week and shared the lobster roll which was $18 and we both thought it was good. However, if the dish were $15 we agreed we probably would have liked it more and if it were $22, we probably would have liked it less. I know you commented on your review on the Middleberg place about not thinking you got value for your meal, but how much do you think price really impacts your reviews? Do not take this as a criticism, just looking for some insight into your process.

I guess we're all a bit more forgiving of things that cost less than usual, right? Bar Charley, which I'm reviewing Nov. 10, offers a bunch of favorite foods at a lower-than-usual price, a detail I kept in mind as I ate through the menu at the new watering hole from Jackie Greenbaum and Gordon Banks. Not everything there is great, but it's hard to gripe about, say, an $8 sandwich that includes potato chips or onion rings made from scratch, as they are there. 

 

The bar goes up for places like Harriman's, which isn't crazy expensive. But the total cost escalates with drinks and wine, and ultimately, there were problems with EVERYthing at the restaurant: liquids, solids, service ...

 

Lunch time, gang. Thanks for spending the hour with me. Let's do it again next Wednesday at 11 a.m.

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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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