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

Nov 21, 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.

Hi Tom, I'm a long-time reader and first-time commenter who really appreciates your perspective and work. My question for you relates to a recent Twitter comment that hinted at an issue with meals that seemed like the products of chemistry sets, versus what you were really wanting - a roast chicken. There are a couple of ways to read a tweet like this: you've had some modernist/avant garde meals and were just jonesing for something more substantial, or that you have an issue with experimental cuisine. I choose to believe that it's the former, as I've read your reviews and can't imagine that you have a problem with the sort of fare served at genius-caliber places such as (the just-opened) Minibar. Or perhaps you just had some less than spectacular meals. Whatever the case, it would be illuminating to hear your thoughts. So few places are as daring as these modernist restaurants that it seems unfair to compare them to latter-day Boston Markets, unless you're really just looking for traditional food.

I have no issue with modern approaches to cooking -- when done well.  But a lot of what I've been seeing lately, both in Washington and around the country, tastes more like gimmickry than anything you'd want to eat again.

 

Twenty years from now, it will be very interesting to see what of so-called molecular gastronomy endures.  But I bet people will continue to hanker for things like roast chicken and other comfort foods.

 

NEWS FLASH: After a run of nearly 20 years, “the cafeteria of the Clinton Administration” and longtime No. 1 Zagat-rated restaurant in Washington -- Kinkead's -- is closing  December 22, announces its top chef and owner, Bob Kinkead.

 

 “The lease is up” in February, explains the recipient of the 1995 Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic award from the James Beard Foundation. Kinkead plans to turn out the lights of his 11,000 square foot, 245-seat seafood behemoth in Foggy Bottom after dinner Dec. 22, in part to give his 95 staff members Christmas off.

 

While some online observers were calling it the end of an era, Kinkead does not plan to retire. “I can’t,” financially, he says. Indeed, he may use part of the soon-to-be-empty space for his next idea, which he hints will feature “Mediterranean-Italian twists on what I do.”

 

 “I’m a big believer in restaurants having a shelf life.”

 

The news of the impending closure was released prematurely last night via Twitter, by a manager who will be “severely disciplined” today, says the veteran restaurateur. 

 

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me the day before Thanksgiving. Among the many, many things I'm grateful for this year are my readers and followers of this weekly chat.  Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with me, I learn from you all.

 

Onward! Because some of us have grape juice to buy, pies to bake and french fried onions to unleash from their cans (you know, for green bean casserole).

When my wife and I were out at dinner, she ordered a glass of wine. The glass had a lipstick mark on it that wasn't completely cleaned off. My wife pointed this out and the waiter took the glass back. I watched him as he poured the wine from her glass into a new glass. In theory, her origional glass was not properly cleaned, so the wine should not have been reserved. I asked him to pour a new glass of wine from the bottle. What should the waiter have done?

The classy move would have been to pour a new glass of wine in fresh stemware.

 

Lipstick is tough to remove. I bet the heat of the dishwasher killed any associated germs, but I understand how the stain is less than ideal from an esthetic perspective.

Tom: There appears to be a dramatic shortage of plates and glasses at the Satellite Room! Servers and bussers will begin asking if they can clear plates (plates with food still on them) approximately four minutes after the meal is brought to the table. The pleas to remove plates (such pleas are repeated, by various staff members, every ninety seconds) ultimately morph into demands. Then they give up any pretense of giving a damn what you say and just start taking things. This scenario has played out all three times I've eaten at Satellite Room. I like the food, I really do. If you're friendly with the Hiltons, please tell them that I will gladly buy them dozens of extra dining plates if I never have to physically play tug-of-war with their staff over a plate of tater tots ever again. It's exhausting to be on guard throughout an entire meal. I don't know what the DC obsession is about clearing plates while people are still eating, but it's not just Satellite Room, and it's not something I'm experiencing in other cities.

I don't recall any plate-snatching at the latest venture from the Hilton brothers, perhaps because it wasn't a busy night when my posse and I dropped by for dinner.  Here's hoping the owners will read about your problem and do something about it so you don't have to bring a fly swatter with you the next meal.

Where will you be spending Thanksgiving and what will you be eating?

My plans changed last minute. I've been invited to spend the holiday with a friend's family -- 45 people! -- in Baltimore, where the table will be set with, among other dishes, sauerkraut made by two dueling home cooks. Can't wait!

Hi Tom! Writing from Oxford, UK where I will be for the next few days visiting a friend. Can you recommend any particularly good restaurants to visit here? I will also be venturing into London for a half day - any must-eat places there? My only limitation is that I'm on a student budget, so I'd prefer to spend no more than 20 pounds on any one meal. Thanks!

Oxford, England, anyone?

 

Here's my last dispatch from London. One of the least expensive, but most memorable meals, in the city  is Borough Market, where you can graze on say, cockles served in a cone with toothpicks and one of the most amazing grilled cheese sandwiches anywhere. The latter is sold by a guy from an unnamed cart just outside an entrance, as I recall.

Is the chat canceled today?

Sorry, I was trying to get that news about Kinkead's up.

Tom, I need a restaurant for 9 people at 7:00 on Thanksgiving. There are kids ranging from 2-5, as well as two adults who want the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, a vegan, one person who is lactose intolerant, one who is gluten free, and an adult with serious peanut allergies, so the entire restaurant needs to be nut-free. We'd like the dinner within 5 miles of my house, and in a restaurant that has a very good reputation. BTW, my FIL is really cheap, so it can't be more that $19.99 per person. I'd appreciate at least three suggestions - we'd like to have some choices. Thanks, and Happy Thanksgiving!

You know, for a minute, I thought your post was for real.

 

Thanks for the good laugh.

Is there a place in DC where I can try this dish?

A bunch of places serve this beloved snack of french fries, gravy and cheese curds, among them Black Squirrel, Churchkey, Chez Billy and (food truck) DC Shawarma.  Chatters, feel free to add to the list.

Any insights or recommendations?

Too early to say. Suna, near Eastern Market at 214 7th St. SE, has been open only since last Wednesday.  Johnny Spero, who has experience at Komi, is the chef behind the set (four- or eight-course) and uber modern menu. Is it brave or foolhardy to not give diners any choices in 2012? We shall see.

similar concepts, yet satellite room got the first bites... any word from you on the coupe in columbia heights?

Haven't been.

A plea to everyone going out for dinner tomorrow (including me): tip your servers well. They are missing family time so that we can enjoy a nice holiday. I spoke with one chef who said they had over 600 people on the books for tomorrow!

I second your sage (hahahahaha) suggestion!

Tom, what's the problem with service at this place? I had heard nice things about the food, but went there recently and was treated like dirt by the waitstaff. Ignored for what seemed like an eternity, plates dropped off haphazardly, no followup, and a check left without a word. And I was just a regular customer, no special kvetching from me. The food was decent (probably soured with the service) but I will never want to go back ever again.

Lack of service is one of several reasons I left the seafood restaurant in Logan Circle out of my fall guide this year. A shame. It opened with such promise.

Tom: we are looking for a place for a birthday dinner Friday night. Leaving aside Asian (love Rasika but not this time) we have enjoyed Palena, Corduroy, Tavira and Iron Gate Inn for celebrations. We were last at Vidalia 10 years ago. Would you recommend Vidalia today? Or something else downtownish? Or should we just go back to Tavira?

Having just awarded Vidalia three stars in my fall dining guide, I'm happy to vouch for the southern-themed restaurant helmed by chef de cuisine Hamilton Johnson.  If you're looking for something different, consider Elisir and the Italian-accented cooking from Enzo Fargione. One of the best dishes from his open kitchen is meatballs on silken polenta with a dusting of cheese: heaven.

Which would you choose for a birthday dinner: Izakaya Seki or Little Serow?

Both intrigue me, but I have dreams about Little Serow. Can't get enough of that hot/spicy/sour Thai cooking and the liquid pleasures that accompany it.

We were in England over the summer, after visiting Oxford and Blenheim Palace we went to the Denis Restaurant in Bicester, England - about a half hour from Oxford or the Palace (which is a must see). Excellent Turkish food, all four of us loved it. Outside of Zatinya as good as anything I've had in the DC area. If you are there for a few days it is worth the trip.

Thanks for chiming in.

Tom, I am a former (homesick) Washingtonian headed to town for inauguration weekend. Can you tell me a couple can't-missing dining experiences? My friends and I can't go crazy pricewise, but otherwise any cuisine would be awesome. Had fun at Jack Rose last time I was in town but wouldn't mind someplace a little more unique. Also wouldn't mind keeping to Adams Morgan/Dupont/U St/Logan so we can walk, since I suspect traffic will be nuts that weekend. Can you make a couple recommendations? Thanks! (PS. I left DC in 2005 and still read your chat every week. Yes, I'm a dork.)

Much has changed since your departure! And that's a good thing, as Martha would say. Be sure to fit in meals at Mintwood in Adams Morgan, maybe the redone Firefly in Dupont Circle and the Spanish-themed Estadio in Logan Circle.

Happy Thanksgiving, Tom, and thanks to you for your work. I rely on it more than I realize and my friends have just accepted that every recommendation from me will include the phrase, "well, Tom says..." Have a great Turkey Day!

Awesome to hear from you. Your missive made my day.

Did you mention you used a commercial tour company in Vietnam? I'd live to hear details of the tour and the company.

I had an amazing south-to-north trip there earlier this month, thanks to Vietnam Travel Now, which orchestrated a delicious itinerary for me, complete with English-speaking guides and excellent drivers. The company can be reach at vietnamnowtravel.com.

What is this, Weingarten's chat?

Allow me one pun today, please.

Good morning, Tom. Perhaps I'm getting older and crankier, but I find that it takes me a matter of minutes at most to know if I'm inclined to like a new restaurant. This has nothing to do with food or expense, but with atmosphere, decor, and first impressions of staff. And it's those impressions that significantly color how likely I'm going to be to like the food. I'm curious how those first impressions affect your judgments.

I feel as if I can get a pretty good sense of a place in a matter of minutes, too, just be being seated, smelling the air and glancing at the menu. But restaurants change from day to day (hour to hour even) and I'm glad I have the opportunity to go three or more times to restaurants before formally reviewing them. Because what if the nice hostess is off the time you visit? Or the good bar tender isn't on duty? Or, or, or ...

Okay, but just this one thyme!

Funny, honey.

Tom, I will be having Thanksgiving in Baltimore as well. If your 45-person meal turns into a series of arguments, please come join me and my family at Pappa's for some of the best crabcakes in the city. We'll pull up a chair for you!

And now I have a Plan B. Thank you.

Here's a question for you: of restaurants that have closed in the past 10 years, which one do you miss the most? And why?

Can we go even further back? Because Federal 21 -- Bob Kinkead's first restaurant in DC -- was a trail-blazer but had the unfortunate bad luck to open in an earlier recession.  Does anyone remember Sichuan Garden, the stellar Chinese restaurant that opened with master chefs from China? I had my college graduation dinner there.

This happened to us yesterday. At lunch, our waiter was a sullen, college kid. He consistently brought 4 items (plates, glasses) to our table of 6. Every request (ketchup, water) was met begrudgingly. It was to a point that we couldn't help but laugh. Either he heard that or his coffee kicked in, because by dessert he was kidding around with us and much more upbeat.

My point exactly. (Restraurants changing hour to hour.)

Virtue Feed and Grain has had it the past few weeks (based on some delicious-looking Facebook posts)

We'll add it to the list, then.

Tom, Just wanted to say thank you for the chats and postcards. My husband and I were in Las Vegas last week and had the chance to try out Raku, based on your recommendation. It was amazing. We just randomly ordered things from the menu and had the most wonderful Japanese food I've ever had. Wish we had had enough time to make reservations for the chef's menu they do. We would never have found it or been brave enough to try it without you! Thanks!

Awesome (my new favorite word these days, for better or for worse).

Hi Tom, My husband and his business associates had dinner at Fiola the other night and left quite disappointed with both the food and service. The dinner was being paid for by an associate, however since the associate is from out of town, my husband was asked choose the restaurant. This then put my husband in an awkward position when things went going awry at the restaurant; since he wasn't paying, and thus wasn't technically the host, my husband didn't feel comfortable asking for manager and raising complaints. Conversely, the business associate paying for the evening did not feel comfortable raising an issue as it was the pick of his guest and he wanted to remain professional. Part of the reason my husband selected Fiola, at my (now guilt-ridden) suggestion, was because there is a certain level polished service and food excellence that is expected of such a fine dining establishment. Especially when taking into consideration the $700+ bill, leaving so disappointed is rather upsetting. While it could have simply been an off night, how would have you addressed the situation?

Had I been your husband, I would have excused myself from the table, sought out a manager and explained the cicumstances away from the host's line of vision. My hunch is that the staff at Fiola would pull it together and make right by your party (although you don't go into much detail about what went south).

Your reference to Kinkead's as "the cafeteria of the Clinton Administration" reminded me of the Sans Souci, which had a similar function in the Nixon era. I was too young to have been there myself, but I've been to the McDonald's in that space now a couple times.

Different lighting, huh?

Just wondering why you don't recommend Dino to dinners that ask about Italian in DC? I don't think is a more passionate, involved owner anywhere (well other than Armstrong).

It's not that there's no love for the owner, just that good intentions don't necessarily mean a great menu. I wish it were better edited. But I love his wine program!

I live in Oxford and on a cold, rainy day like today I would go to Moya, a Slovakian restaurant in St Clements (down the High St, past Magdalen College) for some delicious halusky or goulash and a Budvar dark OR I would go to the Big Bang, which has just recently reopened in a new space near the Oxford Castle. It's traditional British food, bangers and mash, but better than you'd imagine. All food locally sourced and very good beer selection. Or an Indian, I like Qumins, also in St Clements, but there are lots of good Indian choices in Oxford. Enjoy!

Excellent! (As opposed to "awesome.")

I agree with Borough Market in London; make sure you go when the full market is open (Thurs-Sat). If you are visiting a friend, is that friend a member of one of the colleges there? If that's the case, then try to get into one of the formal dinners. There are no guarentees on the food quality, but it is something that I think is unique to traditional British universities.

Another good idea. Thanks for weighing in.

More than 10 years but Rupperts was a wonderful trailblazer - miss it still in many ways.

I liked it initially, but do you remember how precious it was? How dinner would commence with, like, a snow pea for everyone?

Tom - heard a story on the radio the other day about a woman who was entertaining a client at a high-end restaurant (at which she is a regular). She accidentally left $175 cash tip instead of $75 on a $350 bill. Two days later, she realized she was missing a $100 bill and called the restaurant to ask for it back. The restaurant told her they had already split the tips between the servers and couldn't get it back for her. She was quite upset because she entertains clients there often. What do you think they should have done? (By the way, I'm on the restaurant's side, although I might not feel that way if I were the woman...)

Tricky. If she feels that strongly about not getting her money back, she might consider not tipping until she reaches the $100 point.  NOT THAT I'M ADVOCATING THAT, it's just a thought. While the restaurant had no obligation to return her money, the staff might want to consider her long-term business.

So we're getting free babysitting this Saturday night! Can you please recommend a not-too-expensive but date-nightish place? He likes ethnic food, especially Asian. We live in close-in Montgomery County and would love to stay close, but would be okay with D.C. too. Thank you!

How about Indian at Masala Art in Upper NW?  Ethiopian at LacoMelza in Silver Spring? Sushi and more at Raku in Bethesda?

 

The lunch bell rings. Thanks for a lively hour, sorry for the late start and have an AWESOME holiday, everyone. See you here next week, I hope.

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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