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

Nov 09, 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.

NO NEED TO RUSH: Washington’s most famous temporary restaurant --- America Eats Tavern, created by Jose Andres in cooperation with the National Archives – will be serving its menu of American artifacts until July 4, 2012, says the celebrity chef. While the food exhibition that spawned the dining concept, What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?,” will close as expected January 3, the popularity of the flag-waving restaurant convinced Andres to extend its run until summer.

 

Well, strong numbers are part of the continuation. "The reason is simple,"  says Andres. "I don't have to rush" plans to install his expansion of Minibar in the three-story space once occupied by Cafe Atlantico.

 

The extension has given the chef and his team time to add a host of new dishes and drinks -- and the interesting stories behind them -- to the AET menu. The fresh ideas include a fish fry, etoufee, pecan pie and one of my favorite cocktails anytime, anywhere: a Sazerac.

 

Good morning, gang. Tell me what’s on your mind today.

I heard Little Serow had a great opening this past weekend. Do you think you'll be checking it out soon? Can you tell us anxious diners what the deal is with the place? I heard they don't take reservations -- any idea what average wait times might be?

I don't want to scoop myself, but I was an early patron at Johnny Monis's new Thai restaurant (right next to his Greek destination, Komi, in Dupont Circle) and I plan to preview the place Nov. 16 in the Food section

 

You are right:  The newcomer does not take reservations. The cost is $45 a person for a multi-course dinner, exclusive of wine, tax and tip.  I didn't experience any wait at Little Serow, but I expect that's because Monis opened very, very quietly. I also expect that reality to change.

Quit slacking!

Sorry for the delay, but I needed to fact-check something.

I'm curious about a number of restaurants that were on the 2010 Guide but not the latest edition. Anything you'd care to share about Central, Charleston, La Caraquena, The Columbia Room, Trummer's on Main? Debating whether I should keep them on my designated hitlist. Thank you for broadening my culinary horizons!

 You're welcome!

 

While I enjoyed my last meal at Central Michel Richard, there were restaurants similar to it that I liked more (and with only 40 slots, I had to be super-selective).  

 

Charleston is still delicious, but the service there was really off the night I visited:  cool, distant, unwelcoming.

 

  As for La Caraquena, the coooking  isn't as exciting as I remember it from last year, plusit was annoying to watch the owner not lift a finger when his small staff struggled to keep up with a busy dining room.

 

Columbia Room and Trummer's? See above.  They were not included so as to make room for a few newcomers I particularly liked.

Tom, What is your opinion about New Years Eve dining out with special menus. Is it worth the extra splurge at the higher end places (i.e. Citronelle, Marcels Adour etc), or would it be better to visit those places when they have their regular menus?

Bottom line: In most cases, you're going to pay a premium to dine out in a high-end restaurant Dec. 31. I'm a big advocate of celebrating the holiday just before or just after New Year's Eve (and spend the actual date at home).

The best we have found - at La Casa in Alexandria in the Foxchase shopping center. (Interestingly, La Casa is run by the parents of Komi's Johnny Monis).

I just learned something. Thanks for the gyro source and the delicious detail.

Tom, I'm an avid reader of your reviews and chats. My question--how do you physically do your job? Do you take notes during a meal? A pad and pen would certainly draw attention to you as a reviewer. Do you (hope not) tap away on a smartphone or pad? Or do you just have an incredible memory?

It depends on the occasion and the restaurant. I'd be lying if I said I never jotted down a word at the table, but sometimes I do that, to record, say, an accurate quote from a server or recall the music being played or the details of an especially complicated dish. 

 

The older I get, the harder it is to carry on a conversation and remember everything that happens during a two-hour lunch or dinner with tablemates. I always have a pen and paper in my jacket; typically, I''' excuse myself to take notes in the restroom. Otherwise, I'm pretty disciplined about sitting down at the computer at home and typing everything I recall from the meal I just ate.

 

What I try to do is blend in, be quick about anything I jot down. Have you noticed how many people are typing away on their phones or Ipads when you go out?  Maybe I'm one of them. Maybe I'm not!

Hi, my partner and I are staying in DC for Thanksgiving this year, decided on going out to eat, and are trying to decide where to go. I saw all of your recommendations/lists of places that will be open for Thanksgiving dinner; but, was wondering where you would go for this meal. Thanks and a quick note to say that I love this chat and you have never steered me wrong in the past!

Hmmm. That's a toughie, since I haven't seen all the menus of all the Thanksgiving providers yet. But I like the idea of something cozy (Perry's in Adams Morgan),  regional American (Vidalia in the West End) or plush-but-gracious (Plume in the Jefferson Hotel).

 

That help narrow your decision? I wouldn't dawdle. The clock is ticking!

In the spirit of election day, consider this a No vote on having more chefs as chat guests. The previous chats with chefs were extremely boring, unless you enjoy Roberto Donna getting grilled. All chefs ever say is "my restaurant is good, please visit." If you want to have a guest, I would be more interested in someone who creates and designs restaurants. E.g. are bars almost always too small on purpose (Rosa Mexicano, Pizzeria Paradiso, new Palena)? Why so slow to move into high income zip codes in NW (Pete's is usually overflowing)?

Thanks for the feedback.

Looking for a place to take my wine-loving husband for a nice meal, where he can bring his own bottle. I was considering Westend Bistro, The Source, Rest Eve Bistro -- but honestly, it doesn't need to be someplace very fancy, just good food, knowledgeable service & a comfortable atmosphere. Suggestions, please?

Let me add another option to your list: 1789 in Georgetown, now helmed by Anthony Lombardo, the former sous chef at Casa Nonna. I was there for dinner recently and had occasion to indulge in something special from a friend's cellar. The corkage fee was a fair $20.

Please explain the dearth of edible mexiican food in our area. I'm from Texas so perhaps my standards are high. I lived here previously in the late 70's and Anita's, then a tiny 12 table restaurant in Vienna, was incredibly good. Now that I've moved back and tried multiple locations and menu items, frankly the food there is absolutly horrible. The same is true for the countless other mexican places i've tried. If I could, i'd fly back to Texas every month or so just to eat. What gives?! Do you know of any mexican places I've been unable to discover? Thank you, Cindy

You have my sympathy. Part of the problem I attribute to our relatively small Mexican community. Also, places that may have started out on a promising note (I'm thinking now of Casa Oaxaca in Adams Morgan) have let the quality slip over time.

 

Two exceptions: Taqueria La Placita in Hyattsville, true to Mexico right down to the Coke from that country, and R & R Taqueria, a scruffy but satisfying Mexican source in a gas station in Elkridge. 

 

What am I missing, chatters?

Hi Tom, I would like to know if there are any BYO's in DC? If not, then why? If so, then where do you recomend to go? Thanks Tom!

There are more places where a diner can bring his or her own grape juice than you might think. They include Belga Cafe on the Hill (no corkage fee on Tuesdays), Cafe du Parc near the White House (free corkage Monday through Wednesday), Charlie Palmer Steak on the Hill (free corkage on Friday), Dino in Cleveland Park (free corkage Monday through Wednesday), Urbana in Dupont Circle (corkage waived on first two bottles) and the recently reviewed Thai X-ing in Ledroit Park.

 

Chatters, feel free to add to the list.

Hi Tom, I thought you'd like to know when I typed sietsema into my new iPhone it autocorrected to diet demand.

No. way. Jose.

Heading up to NYC this weekend for our anniversary. Haven't seen a TS' NYC postcard since 2009. May have missed a more recent one but looking for suggestions. High end or fun, price less important than value!

Fun: Danji, a teeny modern Korean spot on West 52nd, where earlier this year I enjoyed some terrific small plates, including scallion pancakes, kimchi made for the restaurant by the owner's mother-in-law, a riff on paella (it works, wonderfully) and steak tartare.

 

High-end: Le Bernardin, the seafood temple that recently reopened after a month-long makeover. I haven't seen the results, but I hear the room is gorgeous after not having had any work done for decades. And Eric Ripert remains one of the city's top chefs.

Any update on the opening of Daikaya?

As far as I know, the ramen restaurant from the founder of Sushiko is still expected to set sail on Sixth St. NW in January, with Katsuya Fukushima in the kitchen.

Can you recommend a good (but not terribly expensive) Thai restaurant near Logan Circle or Chinatown? I'm particularly interested in a place that won't hand me a plate of bland food when I'm expecting something spicy and flavorful

Aside from the fledgling Little Serow?  I'd probably opt for Rice on 14th St. NW.

Hi Tom, we have some friends from out of town visiting this weekend, and we'll be going to the Newseum on Saturday afternoon. Is there a good place nearby for a foursome to grab dinner? Looking for something moderately priced (Entrees ~$20 range) and that we can chat and catch up (I love Rasika, but it's way too loud in there, sadly). Thanks!

Peaceful and good and inexpensive in Penn Quarter -- you sure you don't want a postcard view with that, too?

 

Seriously, your best bets are probably Oyamel or Jaleo, the Mexican- and Spanish-themed restaurants, respectively,  from Jose Andres. If you get there by 6:45, 701, overlooking the Navy fountain, offers a terrific three-course menu deal for just under $30.

I think BYO is ridiculous unless the operation does not have a license to sell. Rude. I recently moved here from NYC....what a no no! If you are that cheap stay home and if your bottle of wine that outrageously fabulous, hire a private chef and celebrate at home. ugh!

Anyone living in Philly would disagree with you.

 

As long as you don't bring in stuff that's on a restaurant's menu, or you're coming in with something special, what's wrong with the practice? I think it helps fill seats some nights.

Tom, this is the internet. You don;t have to fact-check anything. As soon as you post it in your chat, ON THE INTERNET, it automatically becomes true.

Riiiiiight.

Tom--I finally got to your two favorite restaurants in this part of town, Atlas Room and Ethiopic, and had fine meals at each. While there were small flaws at each, both struck me as two of the best additions to the Hill area in some time, much better than anything that has emerged on Barracks Row. But I also want to lift up a few recently opened places that I think are providing good food at bargain prices: The Big Board and Shawafel. The burger I had the other night at Big Board (in the old Toyland spot) may not have been the match of the best in town, but it was decent, certainly better than what Good Stuff is pumping out to crowds. (The only problem was slightly confused service and noise). And the falafel/shawarma wraps from Shawafel are terrific, and a great deal at a good price. I'm looking forward to trying Toki Underground also. Of course, I'm still partial to the sandwiches at Seventh Hill Pizza, and the new brunch at Pound Coffee on Pennsylvania Ave. is promising as well. So, by and large, much of the best new food in the Hill area is also among the cheapest in the area, putting to shame the mini-empires of the local restaurateurs.

So much to digest there! Thanks for the field report. Haven't made it to either Shawafel or Big Board (isn't the paint still drying on its walls?!) I was sorry to see Toyland shutter, but always welcome a nice spot to eat in NE.

How about Guajillo in Arlington.

Guajillo was good when it opened. Has anyone been there recently? I admit, I have not.

I find your NYC elitism rude.

Did I miss something?

Funny. Your quote still greets those who visit the Guajillo homepage. http://www.guajillogrill.com/index.html

But you know how I feel: Never trust a review older than a year!

Tom - any idea on what is going on with Eammons opening on Columbia Pike - they said late october and it doesn't look like any work has been done. I also heard a rumor that it will be full service and a larger menu - have you heard anything?

Cool news from Todd Thrasher, a partner in the business:  The second branch of the wee Irish retreat created by Cathal Armstrong will include a separate bar called TNT, which stands for Tristan Noah Thrasher, who is Thrasher's young son.  TNT will play rock 'n' roll and offer two drink menus, one with cocktails designed by Thrasher, the other borrowed from his fellow mixologists from around the world.

I'd recommend Proof, although on the higher side of the price range. Graffiato is wonderful but probably louder than the chatter is looking for. Also, unrelated to food, but the Newseum is offering free admissions to active military and veterans this weekend so expect huge crowds!

Hate to type it, but my last meal at Proof was not great.  Everything tasted a little tired, and I didn't notice much that was new on the menu. Graffiato is, for sure, too loud for what the chatter wanted.  Thanks for the tip re: the Newseum.

I think the "NYC elitism comment" was made for the poster who thought the practice was rude. IMO there's nothing wrong with bringing a bottle as long as you check with the restaurant for their policy and make sure to avoid bringing anything on the list. Remember, corkage is a privilege, not a right, and it pays to have good manners.

Whew. (Good advice, btw.)

Tom -- what relevance do you place on reader/fan input on places to go check out? The great thing about your chats and your writing is that you seem to put yourself in the position of an average (albeit enthusiastic) diner. So I'm wondering whether you consider what you hear from readers when deciding where to go. And no, I don't mean PR people (and I'm not a restaurant PR person, FYI). Btw, consider this a pitch for Bazin's in Vienna, in case you seriously consider such input.

I follow up on reader tips a lot, typically when the suggestions are accompanied by some understanding of the food being served.

 

This gets my attention: "I grew up eating Mexican food in Mexico City and I just came across a place called XYZ that reminds me of home."

 

This does not: "We have a favorite Chinese restaurant near our home (the General Tso chicken is to DIE for!), but it doesn't seem to be very busy. Maybe a review from you could help?"

But could you make it a million and one? :-) I tried reading thru prior transcripts but just couldn't locate the answer. Place for great lunch near the Smithsonian? Thanks for everything you do!

"Great?"  That's not going to happen nearby. Mitsitam, the cafeteria in the American Indian museum, is decent for what it is.  Sou'wester, in the Mandarin-Oriental is quite good. If you don't mind a stroll, you could also hike over to Johnny's Half Shell on the Hill.

Tom: Since you started the Chat late, will you be extending it another 10 minutes?

Yes.

I'm not trying to be rude....but would you bring a case of beer to a baseball game? Popcorn and coke to a movie? Let's be honest, this is how these places make there money. I feel for the restaurants. I think it is great to fill tables on quiet nights, but I went out with a table of 6 recently and they brought 6 bottles of wine. I don't think it is fair. That's all!

Some people spoil it for everybody, huh?

 

That's awful. The few times I've brought wine from home, I always make a point of at least ordering cocktails or even a second bottle of wine from the restaurant.

 

Hi Tom, I was wondering how much organization your job requires. I do feel that you do a fine job covering the many areas that form your readership (Nova, DC, MD). Do you overtly look at your schedule and say "I have two DC restaurants and a Maryland place, so I need a place in Virginia for the final Sunday of the month." Also, do you have a datebook or planner listing out all of your meals for the next month? It would be interesting to see a page or two from past months or years. Do you ever feel that you do not have the luxury of spontaneously going somewhere you would ike to eat because there are too many places where you HAVE TO eat?

Ah, you follow me closely! Since I took the job in 2000, I 've made an attempt to highlight at least two suburban restaurants a month for the Magazine. Each month, I make anywhere from 30 to 50 resevations and note everything down -- who, what, where, the cost -- in a monthly planner.

 

I recently spilled Lysol on the document  (don't ask) and almost had a breakdown. My calendar is my LIFE. I'd rather lose my watch or my glasses than my highly-detailed paper diary.

 

You can't do this job if you're not organized. Or have an assistant who is.

I am heading to NYC in December. Are there any restaurants I shouldn't miss? Tom, thanks for your hard work keeping us gastronauts well-fed.

Locanda Verde is fun. Sushi Yasuda always transports me. Modern is one of the best museum restaurants anywhere, and if I want to splurge, I go to Eleven Madison Park.

who sneaks food into a movie theater. I may get a small drink, but I share that because there's enough soda to fill a supertanker. Besides, movie theater popcorn is terrible -- I never buy it. I'd rather snack on some M&Ms.

I went to the movies once with someone who got away with sneaking in barbecue

I was looking to take my wife out for a great dinner and was thinking about trying Adour DC. Have you eaten there recently as my friends have really good things to say about it. I noticd its not on your top 40 list as well so I thought I would check your opinion.

I like it, but I don't love Adour.  For fancy French, I prefer Marcel's.

You said, just now: "Mitzitam, the cafeteria in the American Indian museum, is decent for what it is." In 2005 you gave it two stars, which my reading of your work suggests is much better than "decent." Has the place declined over the years? My visits earlier this year showed the food was pretty tasty; the ambiance is, of course, totally self-serve cafeteria. I would go with "good to better than good for what it is" as my call, but certainly it doesn't have the "nice sit-down restaurant " feel.

I went to Mitsitam about a month ago, for a check-up. The food is no longer quite as interesting as it was when I first wrote about it.

 

 

Sorry for the delay earlier, but I appreciate your patience. See you here again next week, same time. Ciao for now.

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Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s sidewalk.com and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and 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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