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

Nov 14, 2012

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.

So what did your Hurricane Sandy emergency food stash consist of? Mine included a case of water (of course), a loaf of bread, peanut butter, breakfast bars, protein bars, tuna packets, bananas, apples, wheat thins, and Spaghettios (don't judge). And a Costco-sized bag of Halloween candy that I already had on hand. Maybe the readers would like to share what was in their hurricane stockpiles?

Aside from my usual inventory of wine and popcorn, I didn't have much food on hand for (or during) Sandy, partly because I live in the city and was optimistic about at least a few restaurants staying open during the storm -- which they did.  The night of the storm, I ended up with some neighbors at the Tabard Inn, where I admired the poise of a lone server who assumed responsibility for a packed dining room.

 

How did the rest of you fare?

 

 

COMING UP: “Not my taste,” says chef Art Smith of his dining room in The Liaison Capitol Hill that was designed before he signed on four years ago.

 

So young as it is, Art and Soul is closing immediately following the Presidential Inauguration for a makeover that will transform the modern interior into something better suited to the restaurant’s farm-to-table southern menu.  When the place reopens in mid-February, its carpet will have been replaced by herringbone wood floors, the outdoors will be suggested in garden colors and hand-painted farm signs and a sculpture of different types of beans will draw eyes to  one wall.

 

The change won’t affect the kitchen, which will continue to be manned by executive chef Wes Morton.

 

Smith plans to throw a “chef’s ball” at Art and Soul the night before the Inauguration, with a start time of 11 p.m. to accommodate guests’ work schedules. Invitations will be sent out to local and visiting chefs, says the Chicago-based chef, but their followers will be able to purchase tickets to the party, too. On the menu:  Fried chicken and waffles and “lots of Champagne,” says Smith.

 

A renovation isn’t the only thing on his mind. Smith says he’s scouting locations for a second, more casual restaurant in Washington. Adams Morgan and Georgetown are strong contenders for what sounds like a delicious concept: a ham and bourbon bar.

 

Forgive me if the chat is a bit slow today. I've just returned from a trip to Vietnam and have been plagued by some serious jet-lag.

 

On with the show.

 

Hi Tom, as you ate your way around town (you lucky thing!) for the Dining Guide, what were the one or two places you used to love that disappointed you most, whose cooking and/or service had fallen the most? Thanks, A big fan

Early on in my reporting/eating for the fall guide this year, some previous favorites were so disappointing, I  worried I wouldn't come up with 40 places to feature. 

 

Among the notable letdowns were Haven Pizzeria, which I initially adored, especially for its clam pie; Ardeo + Bardeo, where I had overcooked pasta with gritty clams and a flat-tasting lamb sausage pizza; La Chaumiere, which tasted every bit its age and served overcooked lamb, ancient vegetables and a souffle that tasted of scrambled eggs; and BlackSalt -- a serious, salty, $400 disappointment for four. 

 

There were plenty of other clunkers, but those come to mind at the moment.

Hi Tom - I loved your fall dining guide. Thanks for everything you do. I'm heading to Baltimore for a rare night out and staying about a mile from the Inner Harbor. I currently have a reservation at Black Olive (Woodberry Kitchen was booked by the time I thought of making a reservation). Is Black Olive my best bet at this time or is there another restaurant that you'd recommend that I'd also be able to get a reservation for this weekend? Thanks.

Black Olive is a solid choice. Stay with your plan, and be sure to incorporate some whipped fish roe and whatever whole fish looks goods in the display case into your dinner. 

Where were you in Vietnam? My friends from various regions of Vietnam have shared various regional specialties and pointed me in the direction of some great local restaurants highlighting these cuisines. Any favorite dishes? Has your trip changed your perception of good/authentic Vietnamese food here in the DC area?

I did a south-to-north tour of the country and ate in about a dozen different restaurants. The take-away for me was this:  the good places here aren't that different from the role models overseas. But the herbs over there all taste fresher, brighter, more vivid.  And my guides chuckled about my wanting to try every banh mi I encountered. In Vietnam, the sandwich is strictly street food eating, nothing you'd find on a restaurant menu.

Anyone read this and immediately think of the hilarious SNL sketch with John Hamm and Michael Buble? John Hamm opens up a restaurant that only serves ham and champagne, which is a play on their last names (if you pronounce Buble as bubbly).

Love it! (And them.)

I had a wonderful meal at the Blue Duck Tavern - but the back strain entering and leaving detracted from an otherwise wonderful experience. The front door is really visually striking, but I'm a middle-aged woman and I was dining alone, so I had to wrestle with that 2-story high door by myself, both coming in and leaving. I understand a doorman may not be feasible... in that case, at least make sure the darn thing isn't sticking! Throwing my weight against it to exit wasn't a happy final impression.

I hear you. That giant door at Blue Duck Tavern always reminds me of the one leading to the wizard in "Oz."

I know this will sound like a flack for the location, but I promise you I'm not -- have you ever thought of doing an article that focuses on the many restaurants in National Harbor? I've stayed there once and eaten at Grace Mandarin, but I'd be interested in getting your opinion on what other locations are worth checking out. I know the Going Out Gurus always get questions about "Where can I go in X neighborhood," so I thought doing neighborhood-themed articles might be an interesting way for you to go. National Harbor was the first one that sprang to mind, but perhaps there are others as well.

I've covered several restaurants over there in the past, including the Chinese restaurant you mention, and keep waiting for something to really excite me. At the moment, the Italian-themed Bond 45 is probably the best of the lot.

Tom, my nephew is coming down for Thanksgiving. Unlike many of his friends in their early 20s, he is a confirmed meat-lover, and I would like to take him out to a good steakhouse after an Saturday afternoon concert. We will be in the Bethesda/Rockville area. Thanks for any tips you can provide.

Do you mind coming into the city? Because your best bet is Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons in Georgetown. More convenient -- but way down on the list -- is Capital Grille in Chevy Chase.

Tom, Do you ever take into account how hungry you are when you go to a restaurant and rate its food? I always find that the hungrier I am the better food seems to taste.

Good question, but I think inferior food still tastes like inferior cooking regardless of how hungry I am.

Tom, no question just thanks for years of always steering me towards the best spots (here and everywhere), and making ME sound like an expert when friends ask for recommendations. Coming up, we have reservations at Art & Soul for Thanksgiving and Estadio for my husband's birthday, thanks to your always thoughtful reviews and guidance. Keep it up! And good for you for relentlessly cruising Vietnam for Bahn Mi - we did the same and were not disappointed.

Your post just made my day. Thank *you.*

Hi Tom! Longtime reader, first time poster. Just wanted to give due praise to Westend Bistro for a lovely dining experience there on Friday. A friend had generously offered to treat me to birthday dinner, and I chose Westend Bistro, knowing about their new chef (but before reading your column last week!). I arrived on time for our reservation, but my friend got caught up at work and arrived 45 minutes later. The staff at Westend could not have been more gracious. They sat me promptly anyway, and I ordered a drink and an app in the meantime, without any grief from them about the timing discrepancy. Our server, Rachel, was fantastic and I'm glad I followed her recommendation of the duck liver mousse. The meal was great (the sides really shined) and the whole dining room staff was very attentive. Many thanks to their whole team.

Indeed. It tastes like a fresh restaurant again, Westend Bistro. I'm a fool for its Manhattan swirled with spiced apple syrup, the very essence of autumn.

Tom, have you tried the new Mexican joint in Clarendon? It's always packed, and the menu looks interesting, but I'd hate to wait an hour for a disappointing meal...

Stay tuned: I'm reviewing the latest restaurant from Passion Food Hospitality Dec. 2. Meantime, a piece of advice if you like your food on the (seriously) hot side: ghost peppers.

I'm excited that I scored a reservation for Minibar in a month. I've never been and not sure how tipping works since there are no servers in the traditional sense. I understand the chefs serve the food to you. If tipping is partially to make up for the fact that servers earn low wages (and of course to show appreciation) is a 20% tip customary at Minibar?

Straight from minibar's general manager to you:

"Gratuities are shared and support our staff which includes stagiaires, stewards, servers, bartenders, and hosts. A 20% gratuity is customary, but as always, it is up to the discretion of our guests."

For the person looking for an alternative to Woodberry Kitchen in the Inner Harbor, you may want to try Fleet Street Kitchen on Fleet Street. It's another farm to table operation. I particularly enjoyed the accompanying sides and appetizers.

I've never been. Thanks for the suggestion.

Hi Tom. Trying to wow my parents with their first Christmas in Washington. We have plans to see a concert and attend mass near Metro Center and go to the National Tree on the Ellipse. Where you would suggest going to for 1) a fish/vegetarian dinner (no meat on Christmas Eve for our family) and 2) dessert and perhaps a hot beverage to warm our presumably chilly bodies after walking around. We will be on foot for the eveing so I would like to stay between the White House and Chinatown. And good old Dad will not touch Indian. Thank you in advance!

Cafe du Parc on 14th & Penn. is close and good for dinner; for drinks, try the Round Robin Bar nestled in the Willard hotel.

Tom, missed the chat but had a comment on holding chairs at the bar. I want to offer one exception for the first come first served rule. I think it is called the Norm and Cliff rule. I am a regular at the bar at a local restaurant. There is a group of us who congregate there 3 or 4 evenings a week. We hold a chair for a half hour or so in case one of the gang shows up late. I don’t think this is rude, a quick check of my tab there show I have left in tips at the bar (minimum 30%) or just over $2,000 so far in 2012, probably average for the group. We do almost always give up the chair if asked politely, but cop an attitude…. Do I feel bad about letting someone stand who comes in and asks for the happy hour menu (happy hour was discontinued 2 ½ years ago), not really. Neither the bar manager, nor the general manager, nor any of the bar staff think they are missing out by having the chair empty. All customers are equal some are just more equal.

Thirty minutes is a loooong time to hold a bar stool for someone, but given your loyalty to the place, I can see why no one in the restaurant says anything to your group.

Between the election results and the cold weather I'm in a bit of a funk. Any suggestions on where to eat to help my mood? Open to most anything but would prefer something in NOVA maybe DC.

A Neapolitan pizza at Pupatella in Arlington would cheer me up. So would a bowl of ramen at Toki Underground on H St. NE. As would just about every dish at Little Serow in Dupont Circle.

Tom, I think I'd have to disagree with you. If you came out of the wilderness after consisting of twigs and grubs for 2 weeks .... food from Burger King would seem like nectar and ambrosia from the gods.

I'd like to think I'd still mull the individual merits of the twigs and grubs!

Another great Baltimore joint to check out-- The Fork and Wrench in Canton. GReat for vegetarians and meat eaters a like. Everyone always talks about Woodberry Kitchen but there are some other gems in Baltimore.

Love the name. Sounds like an auto garage is involved.

Hey Tom, long-time bar-fly speaking here. I actually think it's fine to hold a chair at the bar but usually what I end up doing when people ask if it's taken is say that yes, it is, but they're free to use it until my friend comes. Buys some goodwill and that usually gives them an opportunity to keep an eye open for another chair in the interim.

Brilliant. Civil. Classy.

One of the things I stock up on is the Indian foods sold in the grocery stores. They don't need refrigeration and are already cooked. I have a chafing dish that will warm them up.

I can never have to much Indian. Great idea.

 

News flashlette of the hour: Fans of matchbox have another source for mini burgers and spicy meatball pizza: 1901 T St. NW, where matchboxfoodgroup plans to open its fourth restaurant beginning at 4 p.m. Nov. 30. Among the non-edible features are a 25-foot long bar, a chef's table and a dedicated "to-go" station with its own entrance in the rear.

How much does the day of the week impact your reviews? If it is a slow night, the staff might have more time to attend to the customers or the manager may have given more people the night off leaving them too busy. If it is a busy night the opposite might be true and they have excess staff to handle the increased demands of the customers. I sometimes find the food tastes better when it is busy. Not sure if it means they have to make new batches of soups, sauces and sides more often when it is busy therefore it is fresher.

I visit a restaurant destined for review in the Magazine at least three times, sometimes more, before writing about it.  And I try to visit at different times of the week, to get a sense of its rythmns. I agree: a busy restaurant tends to  perform better than a slow one.

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Thanks for your patience with me. I promise to be a little faster next week. See you then.

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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