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

Nov 27, 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.

So I'm thinking about having a generosity binge between now and New Year's. As part of that, I'd like to tip my servers well (as in, more than my usual 20%). Sadly, I'm not independently wealthy, so I cannot lay down a $100 tip on a $10 tab, but what would be enough to be unexpectedly nice?

Random acts of generosity. Love the gesture.

 

I'm not sure where you're eating and what your tabs are, but if I were a server and I got a $20 bill in a white envelope marked 'Thanks for what you do for me," I'd be plenty pleased.  Don't forget some of the other restaurant players: the host who finds you a good table, the busser who does something extra for you, etc.  In other words, waiters are a big part of enhancing the restaurant experience, but they're not the only ones making good things happen for you.

 

Happy rainy Wednesday, everyone. Thanks for spending the next hour with me on the day before Thanksgiving.  What's everyone cooking, or where is everyone going, for the big feast? 

 

CHEF NEWSKatie Busch turns out to be the replacement for Ed Hardy at the convivial Bistro Vivant in McLean. 

 

A Philadelphia native, Busch, 29, most recently worked as executive chef at Hospada, a Czech restaurant in New York.  Previously, she was a sous chef at Aureole by Charlie Palmer and David Burke Townhouse and the lead line cook at ( the launch of)  The Modern, also in the Big Apple. 

 

Busch starts her new gig Dec. 2 and plans to tweak the rustic French menu she inherits only after tasting the whole script.  But she says she expects to lighten up the selection with some fresh fish ideas.

 

In last week's chat, Hardy told me he says he plans to help Ian Boden of the recently-shuttered Glas Haus Kitchen in Charlottesville with his pop-ups, as well as Benjamin Lambert at Goodstone Inn in Middleburg.  Hardy is also investigating locations for pop-ups of his own, in DC and Clarendon.

 

Let's rock & roll.

Hi Tom! Hy husband and I are planning a dinner for his 31st birthday, which will also be the first time we go out after our baby was born last month. Where do you recommend we go? Looking for any cuisine, $$-$$$, and somewhere that won't take hours so we can get back to the babysitter. (So Little Serow is out, as much as we love it.) Thanks!!

For something new and different -- and really delicious --  consider Rose's Luxury on the Hill. It doesn't take reservations, unfortunately, so you might want to be there a few minutes ahead of the 5:30 opening time, and better to go earlier in the week rather than later. 

Want my two cents on why it's a good thing that you generally focus on pricier restaurants? I definitely don't think you should only focus on upscale options, because variety is always fun and who knows what gem you'll unearth. Having said that... My wife and I are by no means loaded, but we're doing okay for ourselves. If there's a hole in the wall that's cheap and we're curious about it, or there's a new fast-ish food place, or some spot we're not familiar with that is going to set us back $30-$40 total, we (fortunately) can absolutely afford to experiment a bit and take our chances (and for places like this, Yelp etc are helpful enough). And once we have kids, those are probably places that we won't mind taking the tot to for trial runs. BUT... if there's a new place we're interested in and dinner is going to set us back $100 or more, that would be a significant expenditure for us (we are trying to save a bit for that baby) and we would absolutely want a verdict from someone whose opinion we trust - not an online commenter (or 100), and not strictly just friends or coworkers ...and I imagine this will be magnified by 1,000 once we have a kid and the opportunities to venture out alone for a nice evening out will dwindle). And we value your opinion, Tom, so thanks for the work you do!!!! (And if you happen to have reviewed a local hole-in-the-wall or a "cheap eats" place, then it's our lucky day!) Also, my wife is going to wonder why I've mentioned having a baby three or four times...

Your post made my week. Thanks for writing.

 

The truth is, and I think most full-time/big-market restaurant critics will agree, I tend to have more fun in smaller, more casual, cheap eats kinds of  places, and I certainly spend a fair amount of my time in them. But I have an obligation to cover the full range of places to eat, and I believe, as I'm glad you and your wife do, that one of the expectations of a critic is to taste-test the more prominent (generally the more expensive) restaurants for WP readers.

What is a curry leaf? Curry is a blend of spices.

Curry trees produce fragrant curry leaves, which are sometimes identified on menus as sweet neem leaves.  They are long and green and look similar to bay leaves.

I have seen it at other places, but Five Guys seems to take it to the extreme. Go to any Five Guys and the wall are covered with banners showing quotes from reviews from years past. I couldn't help but notice that most of the reviews were in the 2009 and 2010 timeframe and from cities/towns hundreds of miles away. I think it is great they won so many awards, but I always think to myself that my experience today is more important than some reviewer's experience several years ago. It actually makes me start to wonder if they didn't have any positive reviews from 2012 and 2013. I think that if they are going to post reviews on their wall, they should pull down the oldest review and replace it with the newest review to keep all of the dates as close to current as possible. A lot can happen in a few years...

Boy, you can say that again!

 

I've said this before:  Reviews should have freshness dates. Be wary of critiques that are older than a year.

It says to try and send questions ahead of any Q&As so here goes - My family wants to go out for dinner to celebrate my graduation from college. We're all vegan, but my sister hates mock meats (like seitan) and my mother is pretty strict about following a oil-free diet. Is there a place in Northern Virginia or DC where it would be easy for all of us to place an order, or where the servers/kitchen would be friendly, understanding, and accommodating? Thanks for taking the time!

Perry's in Adams Morgan isn't a new restaurant, but it recently switched its allegiance from American to Japanese. Its new menu has about a dozen dishes that are listed as vegan. The selections include grilled okra, fried ramen noodles with vegetables, Japanese eggplant with miso, warm mushroom salad and so on.

Hi Tom: I was curious as to your thoughts on cake cutting charges when guests bring a cake in to a fine dining establishment?

I think it's perfectly acceptable for the restaurant to charge for 1) the use of its plates and utensils 2) having the cake sliced by a staffer and 3) the loss of a dessert sale. 

 

An upscale restaurant is likely to have a pastry chef on the payroll; as a courtesy, I think it's a good idea for patrons to see if the kitchen can make what you want for the celebration before bringing something in from an outside source.

why has the food quality collapsed ?

You heard that chef Cathal Armstrong, of Restaurant Eve acclaim, cut his ties to the Old Town restaurant, right?

Good morning, Tom & crew- Just wanted to reach out to the folks who wrote-in last week about our phone lines and apologize for the bad first impression. Our phone system is connected to the Internet, so if the internet goes down - our ability to answer the phone does, as well. Thankfully we do have voicemail so we can reconnect with those whom were trying to reach out as soon as we regain the ability to do so. In order to offset any confusion in the future, I'll see to it that our voicemail greeting makes mention of the possibility of internet outage in the event the phones go unanswered during business hours. I can only promise you that everyone involved with PO is in business to make people happy. That being said, I hope we are afforded another chance to showcase what we're doing out in Falls Church. It's a great community with a lot of promising things happening- especially in the food world. Thanks again for the feedback and have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday! Tasty Regards, Chef Will

Thanks for reaching out to the original poster, Chef, and a happy Thanksgiving to you and yours as well.

Hi Tom, This is not a question or request. It's a story that you and the readers could take as a little Thanksgiving turkey. Bon appetit. One recent evening, some friends and I went to have dinner at a DC restaurant that you have written about. All seemed well upon arrival, although the hostess first asked me whether I'd like to be seated right away (yes, I did), but then immediately asked whether I'd like to have a seat at the bar (eh? I just said I'd like to be seated). Perhaps that was A Sign. Anyway, so we're all seated and looking at the menus when a large party comes in, and about 50% of it consists of small children. (And before all of you out there get a bee in your bonnet -- this screed is not about children in restaurants.) The restaurant couldn't control that, of course, but they could control where they chose to seat this party with several small children -- and they chose to seat them in the middle of the restaurant. Which meant that as soon as two of the kids starting bawling, which they did as soon as the party was seated, everyone in the restaurant got a free unwanted show. In case you're wondering, the adult supervisors of the children did nothing to calm the children or take them away from the rest of us adult diners in this purportedly adult establishment (no, not "Adult" -- adult!). My friends and I order an appetizer to share among us as a group -- and we tell our server we want to share -- but it arrives not set up to be shared by the number of people in our group. So we ask the person who delivered the appetizer if we could have an extra [thing] to complete the plate, and he says yes of course -- then proceeds to wander off and chit-chat with a colleague rather than arrange for the extra [thing]. So we start eating and then ask our server for the extra [thing]. By the time it arrives, we have almost finished eating the appetizer, which was delicious in case you're wondering. Next our main courses arrive. I am enjoying my moules frites, when an employee of the restaurant (not a server, more like a manager-level person) arrives at our table and asks how we like everything. Before we have much chance to reply, she looks at me, looks at my bowl of moules and says she is going to show me how mussels are supposed to be eaten. She doesn't ask, she tells. She doesn't ask, she leans over, grabs the spoon that was sitting untouched tucked inside the handle of my bowl, digs into the mussels with the spoon and stirs the whole thing up. You see, the mussels are supposed to be dunked in the broth, this is how you are supposed to eat it, blah blah. Yeah, well, the spoon was untouched for a reason. That's because I choose to eat my mussels the way I choose to eat them. But please -- go ahead and invade my space and my food that I am paying for, because obviously I am an idiot. So you're probably wondering what I did next. I asked her to please stop, and explained that I prefer to eat the mussels the way I prefer to eat them. She apologized a bit perfunctorily and left. Now you're probably wondering whether I spoke to the manager about this unbelievable transgression of manners and hospitality. No, I did not. This was due in part to the fact that the transgressor appeared to be a member of the management team, and in part due to the fact that I simply couldn't be bothered. My friends and I finished our food and left, deciding that we would never return there. As for the mussel-stirring incident, I prefer to laugh about it than get outraged. Life's too short. Tom and readers: What would you have done? Happy Thanksgiving!

And you're not naming the restaurant in question because .....?

 

I react to things in restaurants a lot of times based on how I feel at the time.

 

Sometimes, I'll register a complaint because something is seriously wrong (the wine is off or the meat is over-cooked). Other times, I'll let something go, because in the course of hundreds of restaurant meals a year, I see the good, the bad and the ugly and some mistakes just don't bother me all that much.

 

  That lesson you got  in how to eat mussels is more amusing to me than it was to you, plus, had it happened to me, I think I would have used it for fodder in a review. But not everyone has that as an option, I realize.

 

Bottom line: A group with squirming children probably should not be seated in the center of a restaurant where they're apt to be a spectacle ... When you're waiting for a missing piece of a shared appetizer, you have a right to be annoyed by a waiter who "forgets" your request (solution there: flag down another server) ... Not everyone wants to be taught how to eat a dish. But some do! The manager should have asked, "Would you like to see another way of enjoying those?" before taking over your space and your mussels.

 

Thoughts from the audience?

Hi Tom! Have you ever tried Panamanian food? If you haven't, what is your favorite Caribbean food place in the DMV area?

I've never had Panamanian cooking before. Need to add it to my list of things to do next year, I suppose.

 

My favorite Caribbean outpost *ever* was the late and much-missed Fish Wings & Tings in Adams Morgan. Anyone else remember the colorful Jamaican shoebox on 18th St. NW, introduced by the flamboyant Jimmie Banks in the 1980s?  Best jerk chicken and fruit punches I've ever scored.

 

There's not a lot of Carribean food around. I like the Trinidadian fare at the Islander on U St. NW, but I have to add, I haven't eaten there in several years.

 

Any chatters care to weigh in?

Tom--writing to wish you the happiest T.giving, to thank you for all you do for us, and to say I'm greeting my guests with an offering of your blue cheese straws, which are amazing. Cheers!

Ha! I'm bringing those snacks to the home I'm going to as well.  Glad to hear you like them enough to serve them to your crowd. (For those who are curious about the recipe, it was included in a piece I did earlier this year on home entertaining.)

I noticed that there is an article about how one restaurant is receiving blow back for publicizing its opinion on an upcoming change that would affect them. How do you insulate your reviews from the politics of the restaurant owners or staff. Not only from those whose politics you dislike but from those politics you support?

As best as I can, I  ignore the gossip and the hype --  and any political or other affiliations -- and focus on what's on the plate and what's happening around me.  I review places of all stripes. Honestly, I don't really think about what causes restaurants support and what they don't. 

Hi Tom, I always enjoy your column! We were married at the Omni Shoreham and celebrated our 13th anniversary yesterday. As often as possible, we return to have our anniversary dinner at the hotel's restaurant, Robert's. The food there is fantastic, the venue grand and the service warm and gracious, yet I've never heard mention of it in any of your reviews. Is there a reason? I wish more locals knew about what we think of as a real gem. Thanks very much. -SLH in Chevy Chase

Thanks for your post. I don't think I've ever been to Robert's, and for no reason other than it's tucked away and I have a steady stream of new restaurants to keep me more than a little busy. I like that the hotel kitchen offers chicken pot pie, among other comforts, on its menu.

The other day, I was at a restaurant for lunch. They also offer trays of food for office parties and other events. Unfortunately for me, they seemed to be swamped putting together the catering order. They had boxes all over the floor and several tables piled with food. Only one person was helping the customers who walked in the door expecting lunch. This seems to happen way too often during the holiday season as companies order a lunch for their staff. It makes me want to avoid going out to lunch with these places because service is next to non existent. Do these places realize what they are doing to their regular customers when they let a catering order take over?

Catch that, Restaurants That Also Cater? You don't want your dining room patrons to see you sweat.

Posting early because I don't feel like working yet. I am a lucky man. Birthday is in two weeks and wife has already started taking me to celebrate. Last night was Roberto's 4. Not only was the food delicious (gnocchi with lamb's brain, quail and duck liver, wonderful sauces, etc) but the atmosphere is relaxed and totally enjoyable. Roberto prepares everything for you right in front of you. You can tell the staff respects him and enjoy working with him.

That dining experience within Al Dente is one of the most afforable luxuries around these days.  Happy to hear you had a grand time. (And what a sweet wife you have!)

Yikes on the Shoo-Fly review. Seems like you've had a string of bad meals and experiences recently...

I was *so* surprised to give a Spike Gjerde project a "poor" review. But the food there was, with a few exceptions, sub-par. Reading the menu was so much more fun than eating the actual dishes. Had it not been the work of a major player, I never would have reviewed the place.

 

As for Petworth Citizen ...  what happened there? I really like the design, but the drinks and the food were both terribly off. I couldn't believe a former cook from CityZen (!) had a hand in the food.

I really enjoyed it Saturday night: Zuppa de pesce ($14; better than La Diplomate's $32 version); broccli rabe and cauliflower. Our companions ordered pizza and hated the dough/crust. I liked the place and the service and the food, I guess you gotta order wisely.

Right. Rialto is a place where you need to know the kitchen's strengths. I very much liked the hospitality and the environment. Even a decent place in Georgetown is worth knowing about, right? So much in that part of town is undelicious.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I'd like to say "thank you, CityZen, for making our anniversary dinner special." All the staff were welcoming and gracious, but not obtrusive. When the waiter asked if we had any allergies or dislikes, I mentioned that I don't like mushrooms, but told him that it was no big deal. I've pushed them aside all my life. He said they wanted us to be happy and he'd ask the chef if he could do something. I emphasized that it was not a big deal. He returned with the chef's suggestion for a mushroom-free dish--not just removing the fungi but giving my fish a completely different accompaniment. It was far more than I expected but very much appreciated. Wow!

One of the many reasons CityZen gets a rare four stars from this publication. Thanks for the feedback.

Tom: 3 couples dress up and go out every December for a special meal. Highlights in the past have included Marcel's, Volt, Blue Duck, and Cityzen -- we are looking for that sort of warm and more formal atmosphere. This year we are considering Bourbon Steak, maybe Fiola (I'm not so sure) -- what do you think?

I like both your new choices, Bourbon Steak and Fiola. You might want to also consider Vidalia, Trummer's on Main and Plume in the Jefferson Hotel. (The last is so beautiful, its appearance covers for food that is sometimes merely pleasant-to-good.) 

Browsing CL jobs listings, Inn at Little Washington is hiring new Sous chef, baker, butcher, etc. Wondering why so many staff members needed at one time.

It's a big operation out there. 

Tom- have you been to the restaurant Agave in Lewes? It has great food and drinks, particularly the guacamole and the margaritas! Can you think of a place in the DC area that can come close? Thanks.

As in good Mexican?  For what you're looking for, I'd head to Oyamel in Penn Quarter. The restaurant offers light warm chips. Guacamole mashed before your eyes. Tart margaritas. Ahhhhhhh.

When a restaurant allows wine from outside and does not charge a corkage fee, how should one factor this into the tip?

Now that's a generous restaurant! Let's name some names! 

 

Yes to leaving a tip on the wine. As in the cake cutting scenario above, you are taking away from a restaurant's profits when you're bringing in your own drinks.

 

How much tip to leave might hinge on the wine you're bringing in. Does it beg for special stemware or decanting? Does it need to be chilled down?  You need to also consider the average cost of the wines offered on the restaurant's own list.  Maybe best to tip on that figure?

 

I welcome thoughts from the sommeliers and wine mavens in today's audience.

Hi Tom! Have you ever been to Daikaya Ramen Shop in Chinatown? I've tried various ramen places in the area and I would say Daikaya is probably number 2 in the area. They have 4 flavors on the menu-- 3 of which are pointless to try (they lack serious flavor). The spicy miso is definitely a game changer. I usually get the spicy miso with the veggies toppings (from the veggie ramen) and the egg added. This ends up being a pricey lunch but sometimes you just gotta have it. The gyoza is pan fried nicely (most of the time). With all that being said, here goes my rant. THE SERVICE AND FRONT OF THE HOUSE STAFF SUCKS; big time. They are rude and arrogant. I've read many reviews on Yelp to see how many people felt the same way and there's quite a few. Common complaints are that the broth lacks flavor, music is too loud, and the staff seems bothered to answer questions. I think for such a small restaurant making a big impact in Asian food in DC, they woul dhave better service. My interaction with the FOH staff and servers almost masks the tastey spicy miso broth!! Please let me know your thoughts! Have you been? What do you think of their ramen? What other ramen places do you enjoy? Thank you! Sohe

I've been, yes, but early in the ramen shop's life and not recently. I liked the broth more than you do, and I can't vouch for the service, since I was identified as a hired mouth every time I tried to sneak in for a bowl of noodles.

 

Have other patrons experienced this there?

Tom - As an expectant mother, I wanted to give a shout out to some restaurants that make the extra step of providing house made sodas or offering non-alcoholic cocktails. Mike Isabella and Jose Andres' restaurants offer unique combinations of sodas, Fireworks in Arlington offers several mocktails on their menu and wait staff at both Poste and Restaurant Eve Bistro were happy to work with the bartenders to come up with unique and delicious options. If wait staff are unwilling to make the extra effort to have an idea or two in their head (or at least check with the bartender for ideas - I'm looking at you Marvin and Sweetwater Tavern), I'll just stick with water and they lose out on the extra bill charges, and subsequently earn a lower tip from the bill percentage. Hope more restaurants follow the example of those willing to accommodate expectant moms and non-drinkers!

I was at Thally in Shaw recently, which has some house-made sodas in intriguing flavors, including ginger and lime.  Restaurants are getting better at offering booze-free drinks, I think.

i frequently dine very early, around 5:30 or so, so that i can go out after work yet go home after dinner in time to let my dogs out before they have a bladder burst. i know that 5:30 is early, and often my husband and i are one of the few if only tables then. but what annoys me is that at this early hour, the service seems to be, at numerous places, much worse than when the restaurant gets busier. there always seem to be a lot of people standing around chatting, not paying attention to the few peopl dining there. or they will clean tables or sweep right next to us, diminishing the dining experience. unfortunately i have had this happen all over town, even at places of higher quality. it is very frustrating. i guess this is not a question, just a gripe.

I hope your post goes up on restaurant bulletin boards all over the region today. Thanks for sharing your concern. It's a valid one.

Seriously, folks, if you are reluctant to add a few dollars to your tip, then please consider going to a less expensive restaurant so that you can apply the tip percentage to a lower base. I have had to point this out to a few of my friends on limited or fixed budgets, especially when I have felt compelled to add to their measly tips. Don't make the wait staff suffer to stay within your budget.

Fair point.

Hi Tom, I am debating whether to bring my boyfriend to Obelisk or Tosca for his birthday in January. I have been to Tosca three times and have loved it each time. We would probably get the gran degustation. BUT, I have also been wanting to try Obelisk for a long time. I am a bit hesitant because of the reported weakness of the entree courses (it seems like lots of people believe that the antipasti and pasta dishes are very good at Obelisk, and the entrees not as good). It also seems like the atmosphere at Obelisk might be more fun. What are your thoughts? Thank you!

Go to Obelisk. It's an important restaurant in the city, and even if the main courses are lesser lights, they are lesser in comparison to Obelisk's fabulous beginnings and endings. In another Italian restaurant, they would be draws.

Tom, my family and I have been long term customers of FoxFire in Annandale. We love (or used to) the food and the staff. The past 3 times we've been there the food has been horrible. I understand they have had turn over in the kitchen. Do I contact them and let them know we will no longer be eating with them? Of just fade away?

You'd be doing the restaurant a favor by 1) identifying the person in charge of the business and 2) sending him or her a note explaining why you are breaking up with the place.

 

I think it's cool that you care enough to take the time to write about your concerns. Hopefully, so will the owner.

Heading to Austin tomorrow. Tomorrow is not only Thanksgiving but a friend's birthday. Any suggestions on where I can take him, his wife and 2 small children? I looked for a postcard but I couldn't find one. Thanks!

Chatters?

Hi Tom. A few weeks ago, we went out to dinner on a Sunday night. We were on our way to Mike's in Springfield but as we drove past Walker's Grill in Franconia, we decided to try there instead, since we go to Mike's so often. My son and I had eaten lunch at Walker's over the summer and the food was fine. Dinner couldn't have been worse though. The lobster flatbread we ordered as an app had an overpowering amount of cheese and the lobster bits on top were completely dried out (overcooked) and flavorless. When our entrees arrived, my husband found a hair on his filet (we sent it back) and both of our children's entrees tasted as though they'd had a cup of sugar added to the sauce. You'd expect sweet potato gnocchi and butternut squash ravioli to be sweet already. The overly sweet sauces on both ruined them. Only my shrimp and grits were ok. The manager came over after my husband sent back his filet and asked "is there anything I can get for you?". I thought it very vague. My husband replied "just a steak without a hair in it" and that was it. The replacement steak was good but we would've had just as good with more sides for less $$ at Mike's. We left very unsatified. Nothing was comped but I wasn't expecting that since my husband got his replacement filet. Besides not going there again, was there anything else we should have done? The hostess told us they're listed as one of NoVA's top restaurants. I find it hard to believe. Thanks, and happy Thanksgiving!

You should have let the manager know about the dessert-like pasta the moment you noticed it was too sweet and you should have asked the hostess to see the list she addressed (then considered the source).

Due to technical difficulties, if you are having trouble posting a question, you can write it in the comments below, or submit it to next week's chat.

Happy Thanksgiving, Tom! I'm in the middle of a second batch of your cheese straws and wanted to pass along a little tip to those who use a really dry blue (me!). Add a splash of cream if the egg yolk alone doesn't bring the dough together. It only took me about 2 tbs but made all the difference. They are terrific. Thank you.

Awesome tip. Thanks for sharing.

 

You know what I'm most grateful for this year? My four-star readers. Thanks for keeping me on my toes, for sharing your thoughts and concerns and for simply following the restaurant scene with me. I appreciate you all very much.

 

Have a great T-Day, everyone. Safe travels to those who will be behind the wheel. See you next Wednesday.

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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