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

Nov 16, 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.

A FEW WORDS WITH ...

CATHAL ARMSTRONG, the chef-owner of Restaurant Eve and four other establishments in Alexandria.

 

What’s occupying your mind right now?

 

“Teaching young people how to cook.”

 

If you could be a chef in any other city in the country, where would it be?

 

"San Francisco. There's great food out there. Its proximity to Napa Valley and the fact people travel there for the food more than anything else makes it great place to live and to work.”

 

You have $50 in your pocket and your wife is waiting in the car. Where to?

 

Lotte Plaza, an Asian grocery store in Fairfax with stands in the back selling inexpensive sushi and Korean food. We can feed the whole family for that amount. And my wife wouldn’t be waiting in the car. I’d be waiting for her.

 

The best advice for someone starting out in your field?

 

“Don’t do it.”  He laughs. “Go back to school.”  Turning serious, the chef says,  “Turn off the television." What you see on TV  doesn’t reflect the reality:  the long hours, the physical demands, the anti-social nature of life in the kitchen.  " What you need to become a great chef is a work ethic."

 

 

Who would you love to see in your dining room?

 

Bono. It’s time for the Irish celebrity to come in.”

 

Breast or thigh?

 

It depends. Breast if I'm eating roast chicken, thigh if  I'm eating a bird that’s braised.

 

 

Good morning, everyone. I thought I'd start today's chat with a mini-interview with a local tastemaker, something I plan to do on an occasional basis just to keep things fresh in my corner of the online world.  Let me know who else you want to hear from (and the subject doesn't need to be a chef or restaurant owner, just someone who cares about some of the same things we do).

 

A house-keeping note: I'll be away next Wednesday, so there won't be a chat. But I'll be back in the pilot's seat Nov. 30, as I hope you will be, too.

 

Let's get started.

Hi, Tom. You've never led us wrong. This year we are emphatically not flush, but would still like to have something interestng and special for a birthday dinner. Our favorite fancy restaurants are Tavira and Palena and Corduroy. Our favorite food is Asian, despite that list. We are adventurous eaters, and love Korean and Vietnamese especially. Can you suggest something interesting and good that isn't expensive and is new to us? We'll go anywhere - preferably Virginia or DC since we are familiar with the less-expensive Asian food in Maryland. Many thanks. Many thanks.

At the risk of creating an even longer line in front of the no-reservations Little Serow in Dupont Circle, the subject of today's First Bite column in the Food section, I'm going to recommend the newly minted basement restaurant from Johnny Monis, the chef and co-owner of the esteemed Komi restaurant next door. 

 

The fixed price menu is $45. The food -- hot, sour, utterly intriguing -- highlights the zesty part of Thailand, in the Northeast.

Tom, I like Central Michel Richard but agree that is not was as good as when Cedric Maupillier was running the show. I would like to try new things. Can you please recommend a restaurant like Central to go on date with my husband?

The place that comes closest to Central is probably Et Voila! in the Palisades. While much smaller, the Belgian-influenced bistro is just as loud, and it offers lures including smoked trout over celery remoulade, rabbit served with chard and pasta and a very Richard-like burger, this one built using chopped mussels and scallop mousse.  Be sure to book ahead; it is one of the toughest reservations around (well, if you're not a neighbor).

Just a quick line to thank you Tom for your last postcard from Rome and recommendation for Ditirambo. I had a great meal and a fun time there on Saturday, particularly a great lentil and truffle soup and a pear/gorgonzola souffle that I will remember for a while. Also, worth noting that the building's smart use of wood interior design kept the noise-level of a completely full restaurant very manageable. Keep up the good work.

Thanks so much for following up with me.  I'm pleased to see a place that I recommended four years ago has kept up its quality.

I know this topic is a few weeks old but had to share - back in 2002 my dad had a major health scare and was in the hospital for several days. My mom and dad's favorite waitress from their Cracker Barrel actually came to visit, and brought flowers on behalf of the entire wait staff and management. (If you're wondering - no, my dad's health scare was not related to eating at Cracker Barrel too much.)

Sweet!

 

Anyone else have a story to share about the advantages of being a frequent restaurant patron, which was the theme for my recent dining guide?

Hi Tom- My girlfriend and I are meeting two good friends for a double date at a nice restaurant. What is the proper way to settle the check between couples at the end of the evening?

It helps to have an understanding going in. Is one couple celebrating a special occasion? Is this just a fun night out for the four of you? My inclination would be to split the check:  throw down two credit cards at the end of the night, regardless of who ordered or drank what. It's just easier. 

 

I know I'm going to hear from those who disagree with me. Bring on the arguements!

Going to Charleston, SC with wife for long weekend 12/2. First time there. Staying in historic district. Any recent recommendations from you or posters? Thanks.

At the top of your list should be Husk, which I have yet to visit but which has the food crowd buzzing.  Chef Sean Brock, who opened the popular McCrady's in Charleston says of his food,  “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door.”

Hi Tom! Have you been to the ShopHouse SE Asia?  It looks good and has some tasty looking banh me, which I fell in love with visiting Vietnam earlier this year. They were really good about modifying the sandwiches to make them vegetarian. Do you have any other favorite banh mi spots in DC??

I  had so much fun at ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, I included it in my 2011 Dining Guide. I think the fillings in the banh mi there are more interesting than the bread that supports them, however.  In the city, I think Pho Viet in Columbia Heights does a respectable job with its Vietnamese sandwiches.

 

Anyone care to weigh in with other suggestions?

Dear Tom, I used to dine at Floriana regularly when it was located on Wisconsin Avenue. I'm wondering if my favorite dish made it downtown - the linguini with shellfish in a red tomato sauce. Was that on the menu?

Alas, of the 10 or so pastas at Floriana, linguine with seafood is not among them. With a few exceptions, however, I 've found pastas to be lesser lights there.

Hi, Tom. I am looking for a restaurant for a celebratory work lunch, which would involve 15-20 people. Most of the restaurants I know would sit us at a long table, or maybe 2 tables, and each of us would really only get to talk to the 5 people immediately around us. I'm looking for a place that would encourage mingling, either by having a big (round?) table or my just encouraging moving around and mixing. Comet Ping Pong might be okay, but I don't think think they're open for lunch. Can you help us? We're near Federal Triangle and can either walk or travel by metro. Thank you!!

Honestly? I think most restaurant discourage "mingling."  Having a bunch of diners moving from table to table or milling around the dining room is hard on the staff and makes order-taking and food delivery tricky.  Especially this time of year, when places tend to be even busier as a result of the holidays.

 

That said, let me see a show of hands from restaurateurs who might be up for the request.

Hi Tom--any thoughts on CIRCA, Foggy Bottom? A few ladies will be gathering there today just because. Always look forward to your chats. Much better than actually working.

The only Circa I've tried is the branch in Dupont Circle, and not in some time.  If you want another option, consider the latest creation from veteran chef Jeff Tunks, District Commons, across from GW Hospital.

Very cool intro today. Have you thought about other food folks like Yonan, Carman, Rockwell? They always have good stuff to say.

Great ideas, all of 'em.

My family has never had a pumpkin roll (crazy I know!) so I'd like to send them one for Thanksgiving. Are there any local bakeries that you would recommend or even places online that are known for having a great pumpkin roll? Any help would be greatly appreciated!!

Hmmm. The Heidelberg Pastry Shop in Arlington sells pumpkin cakes, muffins and pies, but not rolls. Can anyone point the chatter in the right direction?

 

By the way, today's Post Food section has a terrific list of takeout options for Thanksgiving.

Tom: Since our daughter was born a little over a year ago (and a lot of while I was pregnant) we haven't been out to dinner much and haven't followed the DC restaurant scene to find new places to try like we used to enjoy doing. Do you have any recs for a place in DC for dinner for our upcoming anniversary that is new/newish (within the past year or two) with good food for a nice evening out? The two places we have made it to this year, The Atlas Room and Estadio, were both great (and I snuck off to Graffiato last week with friends but not my husband), but what else have we been missing out on now that we have a good reason to go out?

In the same price category? I think the new Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Logan Circle is great fun, but also really noisy (and it doesn't take reservations, so you either need to dine early or be prepared to nurse a cocktail in the small bar).  Ripple in Cleveland Park is another idea: great service, witty setting, creative food from chef Logan Cox.

um, you are a food critic and you can't pronounce bruschetta correctly??

Mea culpa. I was tired when I taped that Quick Bites segment and I apologize for mangling the pronunciation. I know bruschetta is best said brew-SKEH-tah. I, too, cringed when I heard my error last Friday.

Had a strange experience for brunch at Blue Duck Tavern recently and I'm curious if it reflects any of your recent experiences with the service there. We had a reservation at 11:45am, and showed up 3 minutes early at 11:42am. Despite the restaurant being half empty, we were asked to take a seat in the lounge. We declined the lounge and said we'd just wait by the hostess stand since it would only be a couple minutes. The hostess was clearly annoyed, and just stared at us before asking us again to wait in the lounge, which we declined again. Then she informed us that another couple with an 11:45 reservation was already waiting in the lounge and she would be seating them ahead of us, so really, we should just take a seat in the lounge. I couldn't tell if they were pushing us to order a drink at the bar before sitting down for our meal, or if she didn't want to look at us, or what. I asked her why she was making us wait and she said their policy is to only seat people at *exactly* their reservation time because they didn't want overwhelm the waiters (did I mention the restaurant was half empty?). So after another two minutes, we stood there patiently while she seated the couple in front of us and then watched as she sat another group that walked in after us. We didn't end up getting seated until about 5 minutes after our reservation time. The waiting wasn't a big deal, but the whole thing really annoyed us and put a damper on the meal. I used to work as a hostess and waitress so I know how the system works, and I would have expected them to ask us to wait if we showed up 30 minutes early....but for 3 minutes? I was really disappointed to have such an interaction at a place like Blue Duck, and it's turned me off from wanting to go back.

I appreciate the need for rules, but it sounds as if Blue Duck Tavern needs to take a chill pill and seat people in a sensible fashion. (I'm not a big fan of hanging in lounges either, especially when I'm on time and my entire party is present.)

Tom, I'm at a loss so I'm relying on your knowledge. I need a restaurant that is not too loud to have a conversation and that can easily accommodate 8-12 people of varied food preferences (vegetarian and not). Also needs to be metro accessible.

You don't mention price. I think any of the following would be good places to start: Kellari Taverna downtown, Masala Art in Upper NW (which has added sound buffers since my review) and Bibiana off New York Ave.

My college roommate and I ate at the restaurant near our apartment at least twice a week. It was a chain, I can't even remember the name, but everyone from the waiters to the hostesses knew us. Thus, we never waited for a table, even on busy Saturday nights and got to try new things all the time. It was fun. Now, hubby and I are regulars at a diner down the street from our house. We go at least once a week. If we want something other than our normal, we have to tell them before they put in the order. The head waiter sits and talks with us. The day I ate a milkshake, giant sandwich, two sides and a salad, he stared at my stomach and I told him I was pregnant. They celebrated with us by making me a giant waffle sundae. Its fun to be a regular.

I love it! Thanks for sharing.

What's a pumpkin roll? Like dinner rolls or like jelly roll?

I'm guessing they are savory.

The Hominy Grill and Fleet Landing would be two other suggestions I would offer for your Charleston traveller.

Haven't been to Fleet Landing, but I think I'm still working off my last meal of fried chicken and buttermilk pie from Hominy Grill.

How do you select which restaurants to review? Seems to me there are a lot of great small restaurants that never get attention because they are not personally connect to someone at the Post or are run by a French or other European. Those always seem to get publicity.

Say what? I can't think of a restaurant with a Post ownership connection, or at least one that I've reviewed favorably.  You must not be reading me carefully, because I write about small, non-European businesses all the time. In my 2011 Dining Guide alone, I flagged Ethiopic, Han Sung Oak, Fast Gourmet, La Canela, Rasika, Ren's Ramen and more.  

 

What am I missing?

I like Tom's advice. In some cases where one couple ordered an expensive meal or more drinks than the other, they have offered to cover the entire tip.

Great suggestion -- and a good way to keep dinner invites coming!

Sweet--like a jelly roll but with icing.

Oh. They are news to me then.

Hi, Tom, I used to live in the DC area, but since I moved away some years ago I've come to rely on your restaurant reviews when I'm back in town visiting with family. Now I'm hoping you can help with a pretty specific question. I'm thinking of taking my 12-year-old niece out for a "fancy" dinner for her birthday. I'd like the dinner to feel like a special occasion - somewhere we'll dress up nicely for, an evening to make her feel grown up, sophisticated. She's not a picky eater, but she's also not used to very exotic food. While I'd like the food to be good, I'm really looking for the classic "fine restaurant" atmosphere. And I'm hoping for somewhere in Northern Virginia, if at all possible. Thoughts? Thank you!

That sounds like a job for Villa Mozart, the handsome dining room in Fairfax helmed by chef-owner Andrea Pace. His Italian food is beautiful and delicious and if you visit Monday through Thursday, there's the option of a three-course menu for $39.

Tom, maybe this is not your typical topic but can you talk about some good old fashioned neighborhood pizza places that a family can have good pizza but at an affordable price? I feel like going out to pizza around here is almost becoming a special occasion kind of thing if you have a couple of kids. For example, I too like Pete's New Haven but one of their pizzas is not enough for a family of four and at $23-26 per pizza it's a stretch financially to buy two. Thanks.

I dig the pies at the family-friendly Comet Ping Pong, but its neighbors  complain about the cost, too.

 

Let's start a cheap-but-good pizza list, folks. Who is going to start?

Wegmans has one that is delicious - the cake is really moist and the cream cheese icing is sharp and just sweet enough without overpowering.

(Sound of slapping hand on forehead.)

 

I get it, I get it. I was still thinking savory. Obviously, I've never had the famous pumpkin roll, or roulade.

greetings tom! my aunt and i share a birthday and this year she's coming to town to celebrate. we have a small group--5 people--and would love a fun and casual dining experience in DC. the one caveat is that my aunt is from a small town and her tastes are limited to large chain restaurants (chili's, olive garden, outback, etc.). she loves trying new foods but isn't wildly adventurous. andy suggestions?

Perry's in Adams Morgan is just what you're looking for: a menu that's familiar but interesting (pork schnitzel gets a dollop of potato-avocado salad) and a big, cozy dining room where you don't have to shout to be heard.

 

You might be able to coax your aunt into trying some raw fish, if only a bite, from the sushi bar that also inhabits the second-story destination.

I'm curious, have you been back to Ba Bay lately?

Yes. I SO want to like that restaurant, but the kitchen makes it difficult.

 

Sorry for the delay, but cookbook author Michael Ruhlman just stopped by my office to say hello! Sweet guy. Smart guy.

Hello Tom - I am turning 40 in January and want to celebrate with a small group of friends and a great meal. I am keen to experience dinner at a Chef's Table. Do you have any recommendations in the DC metro area?

The grandest of them all is probably the in-kitchen table at Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown. It seats 10, as I recall. Or did you have something less lofty in mind?

Tom, I'm trying to talk myself into crossing the river to try Nostos, given your glowing review. How does it compare to the upscale Greek places in Washington, Mourayo and Kellari? Thanks for your informed opinion!

Kellari is the most glam of the three, and obviously the most fish-centric; Nostos offers homey Greek food in a modern package; Mourayo, based on my last visit there, has seen better days.

Hi Tom, My DH and I will be taking a day in a few weeks to celebrate our anniversary. We plan to visit the Anglo Saxon exhibit at the National Geographic Museum, and then have a late lunch/early dinner(around 4 - 5). I have no idea what there is around the museum. My husband and I don't eat much red meat, and no shellfish, so we would love something heavy on the veggies. We like spicy, and would appreciate a decent beer menu. Are we too picky? (Money is much of an object)

You're surrounded by some pricey hotels there, but if you don't mind a walk of a few blocks, you'll find Lincoln and Mio off Vermont and L streets.

What do you, or your readers, suggest when one of the couples significant other is extremely cheap and does not want to give a good tip? Like, thinks 10% is good in nice restaurants. How do others handle this? Thanks.

If I care about the relationship, I gently chide them ("Hey, Bob, it's not the 80s anymore") or just suck it up and leave more money on the table.

Tom: If you weren't a restaurant reviewer, what would you be doing?

My dream job? I've always wanted to have Matt Lauer's job on the Today show.  I love news. I love mornings. I love travel. And I'd have buckets of money to eat in all the good restaurants, not the whole spectrum of restaurants.

Hi Tom, First, thanks for the initial chat with Chef Armstrong, would love to see more of these! To the person who is looking for mingling, I'd suggest a private dining room with multiple round tables. I have hosted and been a participant in couple of such lunches, and in some we had brief presentations (birthday jokes to formal product introductions) and some were just mingling encouraged dinners before seminars or meetings. My favorite for such events has been Maggiano's (not a place I go usually, but their proximity to my office and very affordable budget makes it work every time) We get our own room and start with drinks until we sit down, then I notice people go around during the meal. Their large family style meals also encourage people to chat and converse. Now question: have you been to Founding Farmers in Potomac? My first impression wasn't that great, they weren't very friendly and the menu is tough to read. I think I will give it some more time before I go back.

Thanks for providing such helpful advice.

 

Have yet to visit the new FF in Potomac.

I live across the street. Do I just wait outside at the opening time then? Thanks!

I would if I were you. Little Serow does not take reservations. The doors open at 5 p.m.

I wanted to vouch in a kudos for La Canela. I hadn't been there for about a year, and was craving for their steak. One challenge I have with craving good food is, when you go back it is not always the same. But this was exactly as I remembered, and I am determined to go back. The only other places I found exactly what I missed were Black Market and Michel's (before the chef left). I think good food is important but keeping it consistent is even harder, so kudos to the owners and chefs who give us what we like the way we like it consistently!

Consistency is something conscientious restaurants strive for every day. It's not as easy as most of us think! Repetition can become monotonous after awhile, which is one reason chefs like to change their menus with some frequency, to keep the staff engaged.

I'm 36 y.o. and I certainly don't care about the silly trips my "cool" Aunt took me on to restaurants that amaze children. What I do remember is the food she cooked herself and the things that made her HER. Be yourself. That's the coolest thing you can do. Your niece will respect you for it in 20 years.

Maybe the aunt doesn't cook? Maybe she wants her niece to experience something new? I wouldn't come down so hard on someone who sounds as if she's making a sincere effort to do something special.

Their web site says they open at 5:30, not 5.

My bad! (But if you go at 5 p.m., you might have a better chance of being fed first, right?)

No question, just wanted to report an excellent meal at 701. We had the rockfish tartare (amazing) and octupus to start, then I had the bronzino with risotto in prosecco sauce. The fish both melted in your mouth and had a little crunch on the edges (from frying, the good crunch). Wine was good, dessert was good, service was gracious. I know you are a fan but I feel like I don't hear a lot of people my age (early 30s) talking about it, and they should!

Hear that, youngins? Put 701 on your list.

I think the coolest thing you can do is share things that are interesting and important to you. If that's food - whether it be comfort food, home cooking, classic French or South Asian - or if it's music, or science or whatever - that's cool. it's the enthusiasm that counts, not the level of "difference" Be yourself and share what you love and you'll be the cool aunt.

A-men to that.

I have to disagree with the person who suggested cooking yourself. I have incredibly vivid memories of the fancy meals family members took me to when I was younger! It was a great opportunity to learn about food, proper behavior, and have a "grown up" experience. Plus, if it weren't for those meals, I wouldn't have discovered escargot!

A childhood without escargot?!  No way!

I was raised in a middle class family and loved to cook. But I remember how special it was when we went out, even when I went to the cafeteria at my father's or uncle's work. So I applaud the aunt who wants to take out her niece, plus it's a great opportunity to teach manners and how to behave in public which is lacking in today's young generation.

Looks like Cool Aunt has a lot of support here.

Pete's isn't enough for a family of four? Their pizzas are HUGE! Maybe the chatter is thinking of another place and should give Pete's another try.

Maybe the two kids are linebackers.

Great Harvest Bread Co. on Rockville Pike makes a great one.

And just in the nick of time! Bless you.

My parents always went to the same Italian restaurant (probably at least 2-3 times a month...more near the holidays since it was close to the mall). They always asked for the same waiter, and even brought him a present when he had his first child. A few months ago, that waiter left the restaurant, and my parents followed him to his new place of employment!

Lesson No. 654: The power of a good server should not be underestimated.

My friend's daughter received a car as a tip from one of her C.B. regulars. She didn't need it and with their permission, she sold it for about $3000!

Are you pulling my leg? (Our collective legs?)

How about the other direction--Heritage India on Connecticut? Don't know about their beer selection, but good on the veggie front and should be easy to get an early table.

Another worthy option. Thanks for piping up.

I love Ledo Pizza! My boyfriend's brother lives in Chicago and when he came to visit, he said he wanted "DC pizza." BF and I just looked at each other blankly, then a lightbulb went off. Ledo's! He loved it and went back to Chicago and told everyone how much he loved DC pizza. LOL

Of COURSE, Ledo should be on our list.

Will there be a chat next Wednesday? If not, have a great Thanksgiving

Nope, I'll be flying off to Lima next Wednesday. (Ceviche for Thanksgiving for me.)  But as I noted in the introduction, I'll be taking your questions again on Nov. 30. 

 

Thanks for showing up, everyone. Here's wishing you all a delicious feast Nov. 24. 

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 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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