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

Dec 11, 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.

As a resident of the neighborhood, I'm very excited about the opening of Republic as I've enjoyed Blacksalt for years. Can I look forward to a review? Generally how long after a place opens will you try to write about it? Thanks!

When a major player invests in a neighborhood that desperately needs more places to eat, it's pretty much a given I'll be writing about it at some point. Republic, introduced over the weekend by Jeff Black of BlackSalt acclaim, is destined to get ink down the road.

 

I tend to preview newcomers for my First Bite column in the Food section shortly after a restaurant has set sail. Then, I typically wait a month or longer to make the first of several visits for a star-rated review in the Magazine

 

Speaking of BlackSalt, the owner recently hired a new executive chef there. Here are the details.

 

Good morning, everyone. Tell me what's on your mind.

My husband's favorite place for a meal is Founding Farmers. I want to take him somewhere neat for his birthday, but also want a down-home feel to the food. Not super impressed with Art & Soul...any suggestions?

It's been some time since I've dropped in District Kitchen in Woodley Park, but I have pleasant memories of the chef's comfort food, dishes including pork shank with sauerkraut and chicken a la king. Bonus:  The restaurant is mere yards away from a Metro stop.

I have to differ with the view that Ambar is gracious. We tried to have brunch there on a beautiful day this fall. The restaurant was nearly empty but they refused to seat us in the sunlight because "very important parties" were coming. We went elsewhere and, when we finished our meal, the place was still empty. Maybe FLOTUS was coming, but otherwise they were unnecessarily rude.

I'm sorry to hear that. Obviously, that hasn't been this anonymous diner's experience at the Balkan outpost, or I would have reported it. And how impolite for a restaurant to tell you "very important parties" were expected, as if your business were less valuable.

What if the patron spills his drink? Should he get a new one on the house, or not? My thinking: the house.

My gut reaction: The customer should get a fresh drink. But I can see where there might be exceptions: What if the beverage in question was super high-end? Or the customer had just a few sips remaining? 

 

Chatters, feel free to weigh in on the scenario.

Good restaurants in Glover Park?

Sushiko, alas, has gone dark. Bistrot Lepic is decent for French; Malgudi is terrific for southern Indian fare.

 

My last meals at Rocklands (barbecue) and Old Europe (German) were major disappointments.

I missed last week's chat, so I couldn't respond in real-time, but I live in Takoma Park, so Baltimore is about as far as Vienna and closer than the horse country restaurants you review, and we appreciate the breadth you cover. Also, we've been to Woodberry Kitchen (on your recommendation, thanks!) and find an update on Spike's restaurants useful. Please keep up the great work.

Thanks for your feedback.

Had a terrible experience at Oceanaire Saturday night. I called to tell them we were were running late for a 6:00 dinner reservation. I told them we would be there in 10 minutes. I was told they would only hold the table for 10 minutes because they were "packed." When we got there, exactly at 6:10, we were told they were running 10 minutes late on the reservations, and we would be seated at 6:20. Isn't that something we could have been told on the phone. I informed we had 8:00 pm theater tickets. They offered us a seat on the bar. We elected to wait for our table. We were seated at 6:30. I told the waiter we had 8 pm theater tickets who asked me why we made a 6:30 dinner reservation. We were rushed through dinner, to the point that the swordfish we ordered was so under cooked. All to the tune of almost $300. And before you ask, yes, we said something, and basically, they answer was a shrug. Also, I have no idea how oceanaire defines "packed." A whole 1/2 of the restaurant was empty.

Some thoughts:

 

1) The grace period for showing up late for reservations is typically 15 minutes, sometimes 20.

 

2) Similarly, restaurants deserve about that much time to seat guests with confirmed reservations. Because stuff happens.

 

3) I would have opted to sit at the bar, but then, I like counter seating.

 

4) The waiter didn't need to ask why you requested a 6:30 table (when in fact you didn't). I mean, what's the point of arguing with a customer?

Not. You spill your own drink, you buy yourself another. why is the restaurant responsible?

Fair enough. (Curious if you are a diner or an operator?)

Hi, Tom, Our 10th anniversary is coming up in a few weeks and I need to make reservations for a really great dinner. I'm looking for something romantic, elegant and comfortable that isn't too loud, preferably in DC or Northern Virginia. She loves French food and based on your review I was thinking that Plume might fit the bill, especially since we could have drinks at Quill before dinner. Is this still a good choice or should I look elsewhere? Thanks!

I love the dining room at Plume. The interior looks as if it had been airlifted from a Michelin three-star in Paris. The food is more correct than delicious, though.  The place you really want to find yourself is at the utterly romantic Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, the subject of my preview in print today.  Great food, great service, blissful setting.

Tom: Interested in any thoughts you have on Persimmon. I know they did a major menu overhaul last year. They have long been one of the "big names" in Bethesda dining and I'm headed there Saturday night for a special occasion dinner. Let me translate -- should we pick someplace else? Recent online reviews (for whatever they're worth) have been mixed to put it best.

I haven't returned to Persimmon since the make-over. If you're concerned about its performance, try the very good Food, Wine & Co. nearby.  If you want something more upscale -- and pricier -- try Bistro Provence on Fairmont Ave.   Food friends of mine in Bethesda also sing the praises of Assaggi Mozzarella Bar on Bethesda Ave.

Hi Tom, I was out to dinner last night at a restaurant you frequently recommend and observed a curious thing that I've never seen before, either as a diner or restaurant worker. I'm wondering what your take will be. The dining area of this restaurant is split into a main room with an open kitchen and a side room containing the bar (with only a door to the kitchen) and bar tables. On the bar were four or five large serving dishes containing food. At first I thought they were family style dishes for the people at the bar until I saw my own appetizers served from them. What is particularly troublesome is that these dishes were not covered or separated from the diners at the bar by anything more than the foot of bar table space that contained their own plates, easily within sneezing, coughing, and sampling distance. Used plates and checks were passed over these dishes of food and the bartender leaned over the dishes to speak with the patrons (accidental talking-spittle possibilities?). The bartender was also doing food prep both at the bar and behind it (not the expected lemon wedging but rather appetizer prep, meat slicing), which brings up its own issues with sanitation: no hand washing station that I could see, a hand towel that looked pretty grungy for wiping hands, etc. I know you are not likely an expert in DC health code, but as a frequent diner, does this seem odd to you? I'm not naming the restaurant because I otherwise enjoyed my meal, but I can if you would like. Thanks

I can see where the sight of uncovered serving dishes,  less than pristine dish towels, food chopping and no obvious sink nearby would make you feel uncomfortable. Did you raise your concern with a manager? 

I'm a diner. Who read last week's discussion of a patron being soaked.

Gotcha.

Tom, I recently ran into a situation that bordered on Seinfeld esq level of absurdity. A couple of weeks ago I tried to eat with a friend at Doi Moi. I asked how long the wait was, etc and was told to check back in around 30 minutes and the estimate was 30 minutes to an hour. When we got back we noticed multiple four person tables available, along with some in the back that were better suited for large group. We were told they saved them for groups of 3 or 4, because 2 people at a four person table are not cost effective enough and then told us it would likely be at least another 30 minutes. This was approximately a little after 9 on a Thursday. I'm all for a restaurant maximizing its profits, but this seems to have been handled rather poorly. Is this standard practice for restaurants who do not take reservations, or is it just a hostess trying to make her place seem exclusive. For the record, we just went to pearl dive, where we had a very nice dinner and no snotty hostess.

Restaurants don't all follow the same procedures. But I'm surprised the hostess wouldn't seat you at a larger table, given the (apparant) availability of free tables and the late hour. Were you the only ones waiting?

Tom, I very seldom rant (and especially not in a public forum), but I feel compelled to share a story about Braserie Beck. Are there a couple of nights ago, and the service was subpar. Waiter walked by several times without looking in our direction and had to be literally waved down to get a second drink. He treated members of our party dismissively and made them feel bad for asking him for a recommendation. Bill was over $400. Other members of the staff seemed to agree this particular waiter was rude. I debated whether to say anything and finally followed the Tom S rule and finally decided to ask for a manager, who then took forever to appear. I prefaced my comments by saying we didn't want anything--and still don't. All I was looking for was an acknowledgement that there had been an issue and they would look into it. And I felt stonewalled by the manager. Have to wonder if the fact that we were a group of women who weren't big drinkers had anything to do with it. Anyway, the two of us who had voted for BB because we were devoted fans were disappointed. With so many other options in DC, voting with our feet and wallets is an easy choice.

Not cool. Regardless of whether someone is drinking, or spending a lot, diners deservice a degree of graciousness with their meals.

 

Details, if you please: How exactly was the waiter dismissive?  What was the manager's response to your complaint?  Did he even apologize?

Good Guys. Great food and entertainment.

I've only had drinks -- and, um, cheesecake -- at the gentlemen's club.

You think a restaurant might find a source at the NSA to hack your web site cookie data and see where you plan to visit?

Never thought of that!

 

(Not sure you know this, but the Syrian Electronic Army hacked this newspaper by entering through this very chat a year or so ago. )

Tom, We dined at CityZen Friday night. Generally, the food was good. Not great. (i.e. I would go to Marcel's or table 21 or Rogue 24 over CityZen) They rushed the service. We had a 7pm reservation, we arrived to have a drink in the bar and 6:15pm. They asked if they could seat us early (no thank you, we wanted to stand up and chat) As soon as we sat to dinner, they had menus, which is fine, but no wine list. They quickly took our dinner selection (quite easy, six tasting menus), and brought an amuse bouche right away. Fine. I was starting to wonder where the wine list was, saw the sommelier, but he didn't stop by the table. The first course arrived, I asked the waitresss about the wine pairings and she said, " Oh! you are behind" ANd I thought, OH! you never offered us a wine list. Not going back, it's OK but not great, but if I have to go again, I will remember to tell the wait staff up front that we WILL want to look at the wine menu. For the price, so many better places in town.... I'm surprised you give it such a wonderful review.

Doesn't sound like the four-star restaurant I know. I appreciate your taking the time to write.

 

1) At CityZen's prices, you shouldn't be rushed, ever.

 

2) Odd that no one presented you with a wine list

 

3) Stranger still that the wine list ommission wasn't noticed until the amuse bouche came out.

 

 Something tells me I'll be hearing from the restaurant. Care to share your name and contact number for me to pass along? I don't have access to your email on this chat.

I see a few restaurants that seem to struggle to stay open. Most are chains or franchises. At one, the manager said they stopped paying the cable bill to save money. Instead, they are playing DVD movies. There are a dozen things that I would do if I was running the restaurant to attract and retain customers. I just don't know if the chain would approve. Personally, I think restaurants should be on facebook and twitter. If it is a slow night, the manager should post a discount for the next 10 customers who come in that evening, anything to bring in paying customers and keep the staff busy. I would have a kid's night and other special days to attract customers. Sure, a kid's night might cost money in free food for the kids or paying an entertainer to come, but if it increases business, it would be worth the investment. How much freedom does a manager of a franchise or chain have to run their own business and keep from having to close forever.

You raise some good ideas for drumming up business in your post. Hopefully, the afflicted parties will see this.

Hi Tom! Looking for a place for 6 for dinner this Saturday in Penn Quarter. Price should be about 30-40 pp including drinks & tip. Rasika, Jaleo, and Zaytinya are out - have been to them recently. Thanks!

I'm thinking Hill Country (for barbecue) and Oyamel (for upscale Mexican) for your group. And what about the original Matchbox (pizza and mini-burgers) in Chinatown?

My girlfriend took me out for a memorable birthday dinner at Rose’s Luxury. We had the pleasure of sitting at the bar with Bobby, the tatted and talented bartender. She made sure my birthday was special with a smoky mescal drink balanced by a hit of blueberry vinegar and comforting sage. And the homemade fat-back cider moonshine felt like sitting around a campfire with old friends. She capped off the night with an over-the-top candle and a top off. The food also brought welcome updates on favorable memories. The gratis roll was somehow combination of the best baked potatoes and the best rolls that I’ve ever tasted. The lobster popcorn soup combined my family lobster bake in Matunuck with movie theater popcorn that receives an extra twirl of butter. The perfectly crispy cauliflower sat on a bed of Greek yogurt that makes me dread ever putting Chobani in my mouth again. Even the vanilla, sea salt, and olive oil dessert evoked (a drastically improved version of) the fried ice cream from Chi Chi’s that I so dearly loved in my chubby childhood. Coincidentally, or by fate, the Roger Bros. 1847 Remembrance Collection fork perfectly matched the heirloom silverware that my Grandma gave me and I now use at my house. The effortless warmth and precise execution put the restaurant in an exclusive category that I’ve only felt at Little Serow and Komi. The restaurant has more than hype; it has soul.

Are you a restaurant critic? You should be. Love your details. (I'm not a fan of that lobster-popcorn soup, at least not in the jar in which it's served. Too rich! The soup ought to be offered as a shot, or in a demi-tasse.)

 

My full review of Rose's Luxury runs Dec. 22 in print.

Perhaps the Syrians were trying to see if you had any recommendations for their cuisine in the DC area!

I wish that had been the case!

about how every satisfied customer tells three people and every dissatisfied one tells eight? Why don't restaurant owners and managers realize that with the Internet, it's more likely that a dissatisfied customer is telling 800 or 8 million people about the rudeness or dismissiveness of staff?

Dining. It's not just about the food, is it?

If I spill my drink and I want another one, I expect to pay for it. They didn't spill it, I did. If they give me a free drink, that's wonderful of them and I really appreciate it, but I don't expect it. I've never worked in a restaurant.

Yep.

Unfortunately no, I didn't want to cause a fuss over something that wasn't amendable (though in retrospect I suppose saying something on the way out would have not created a fuss), though my boyfriend said that we should have (we both read your chat and know that's what we should do so that's my fault). We did leave a note on the check saying that we thought it was odd, to give them a heads up that someone noticed. I may send an email out of curiosity to see what the response would be but it didn't "ruin" our meal and probably won't prevent us from going back (though I will check to see what apps are on the bar next time and not order those). It was just really really strange.

Leaving a note behind is cool; sending an email to a person in authority is even more effective.

an obnoxiously trendy restaurant.

Or the hot new toy of the Christmas season ....

Long time reader of your columns over the years and my wife and I have eaten at many great places based off your recomendations. My question is that I am looking for a place to take my mistress that has good food but is off the beaten path. More or less looking for hidden gems in the suburbs. It doesn't have to be great food but we would like to get out as we are sick of eating room service. Noise volumn in the restaurant is of no concearn because as we could care less about conversating. Thank you.

Folks, I don't make this stuff up.

 

Not sure where you hope to hide, sir, but you might check out Old Angler's Inn in Potomac. Back in the day, the dining destination was far enough away from the corridors of power for politicos and others to take their secret others. Bistro L'Hermitage in Woodbridge is another possibility.

 

Just a word of caution: Be careful! You never know who's going to be at the next table. And I assume your spouse is not a follower of this chat?

Tom - I finally got around to reading last week's chat today (Monday). You recommended Ambar for their great lunch deals. You and the chatters might want to know that they have ceased lunch service until March. I had a call last week very courteously cancelling two upcoming lunch reservations I had there and offering to rebook me for dinner.

Thanks for the update.

Hi there - was too late to last week's chat, hopefully not too early for next week's... We went to DC Noodles, last night now that they've reopened. Alas, we promptly walked out when we realized they had changed the furniture. There was not one seat with a back on it. The options were long wooden tables with long benches or high tables with wooden stools. As a short person, the stools wouldn't work - my feet just dangle there (don't even reach the foot rest) and with no back support it's very uncomfortable. Long tables don't really work for a couple. I've experienced hard benches and stools at Makoto and Table, when there was no choice. Can't say I'm a fan in either case. Do restaurants test drive furniture? Guess we'll be doing takeout...

I've mentioned before how important it is for restaurant owners to give every detail of their operations -- seating, lights, restrooms, utensils --  a preview before offering it to the public. As a taller person, I like the stools at DC Noodles, but I can see where others might not. Did you happen to notice the lower lounge seating toward the back of the restaurant? That might have been more comfortable for you.

I've noticed, more lately it seems, that there's a sort of them-vs-me attitude on the part of staff and with attitudes like the "I spilled my drink and they should replace it no questions asked with a smile, thankyouverymuch," I can see why. I try to enter a restaurant with a happy smile and genuine attitude of appreciation (please and thanks) because it goes a long way toward getting excellent service or at least not getting a bitter attitude. So, I guess my vote is buy your own new drink to replace the spilled one and, if they kindly comp it, tip accordingly.

This post gives me the opportunity to republish a list of resolutions I came up with for both restaurants and diners at the end of last year. I hope some of you find it useful.

Tom, Tom, Tom. I think you were punk'd by that ungrammatical poster. I mean, c'mon. Kudos to you, though, for giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Yeah, someone was probably pulling my leg. But you never know here!  It was a fun question to mull for two seconds.

My expereince has been that women are treated poorly in restaurants. I made reservations at Amuse at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and asked for a window table. We did not get one, and a few window tables went unused all night. I emailed the restaurant the next day about my complaint and never heard back from the restaurant. All of the parties seated at the window had a man, but our table of 4 women was sent to the back of the restaurant. That has happened more than once.

If it makes you feel any better, a male companion (not my significant other) and I were once refused a corner banquette at a Big Deal Restaurant. The hostess basically said it was reserved for couples. Word got back to her boss and, well, the young lady is no longer employed at BDR.

 

A lot of people complain to me about discrimination. Old people, youngin's, gays, women, teenagers ... the list is a long one.

Etto has large serving dishes on the bar with that night's appetizers that a server will scoop up and plate when ordered. It did not seem that odd to me. Maybe that's how it is done in Italy.

The original poster didn't name the restaurant in question. My mind went there as well.

I have seen this at various stores and a few restaurants. When checking out, the server points out there is a survey online that I can complete. It seems they always say something like, "I hope you will complete the survey online and indicate that you were completely satisfied." Here they are telling me that I was "completely satisfied" instead of asking if there is anything else I may want. There must be a better way to ask customers to complete a survey without trying to force words into their mouths.

How about the more open-ended:

 

"We'd like to know how to better serve you."

Tom, I'm not the OP, but my husband and I recently dined at Cityzen and had a disastrous first half of the meal - I ordered a Dark & Stormy, which they couldn't make, the amuse bouche I received had a bone shard in it (I almost cracked a tooth!) and we similarly were rushed. They must have noticed our disappointment, however, as the second half of the meal was leisurely and wonderful. They also gave us a free glass of sparkling wine at the end of the meal as an "I'm sorry" for the bone shard. Classy, although EZ was there, and it really would have made our night if he had come by to apologize himself. So, I guess my point is, (very) rough start, but CityZen pulled through at the end. I'll go back.

Maybe the chef didn't know about the shard? I don't think he necessarily had to be the one to apologize. Unsure about the cocktail. I could have sworn Dark & Stomy was on CZ's drinks list. Sounds as if the night ended on a good note.

yes - saw the lounge seating with stools. it's why I don't much like Ethiopian restaurants - when they use those low tables. I sound really whiny - but eating a leisurely meal should be comfortable. don't need big cushy chairs, but simple backs (like the bar stools at Doi Moi) work. also their bar stools aren't so high so my feet can reach the footrest.

Not too high. Not too low.

 

I'm starting to sympathize with restaurateurs who try to be all things to all people.

"Should" the diner get a free replacement? Depends on the meaning of "should." Of course, the restaurant isn't morally obligated to provide a replacement. But would it be a good idea for business? You bet! The diner who spilled his own $12 cocktail will be bummed about that, and will surely remember that the restaurant took care of him.

Right. I understand. But what if that drink had, say, a splash of Pappy Van Winkle in it?  Big loss of $ for the restaurant.

At Iron Gate last week, my husband clumsily spilled his wine and broke the glass. The gracious staff promptly brought a fresh, refilled glass. They didn't have to go to such lengths, as it was our fault. We promptly ordered another bottle of wine to show our appreciation.

You rock. Iron Gate does, too.

I have observed, as a diner, that a lot of women in their 20s are often more rude than men dining. I don't know why, but I see it a lot. Very loud, like screaming loud, and a real "focus on me or else!" attitude. One woman at a table next to me was complaining about her "girlfriend" being thrown out of an establishment because she fell through a table. She also claimed not to have drunk "that much". Many, many women in their 20s in DC are just horrible to sit next to and if I can avoid it, I will; I always feel for the staff who have to tolerate them.

I post this at my peril, but I have to say, based on a lot of eating around, women can be just as noisy and disruptive as frat boys.

Seriously? These people shouldn't leave the house. Or don't sit in restaurants. They should just stay home.

Or bring their own "perfect" chairs.

Which would you pick? Or something else entirely? This is for the husband's birthday, just the two of us if that matters.Thanks!

For steak and atmosphere? No question. Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons gets my vote.

That doesn't mean that waitstaff should assume that because a party consists of women, they are justified in giving them bad service from the get-go.

True.

Had submitted this earlier in the week but wondered if it was worth it?

Yes: The kitchen tables at the Inn are fun and not as noisy as you'd think. Plus, you're close to the star of the show, Patrick O'Connell,  for much of the night.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. I'm hosting my last hour of food chat for 2013 next Wednesday, same time. Be there, or be square. 

 

Thanks, as always,  for a lively 60 minutes.

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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