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

Dec 14, 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.

Tom --Do chefs have some sort of mystical immunity to digestive problems? Like many people, I find that garlic and my digestive tract are enemies. Yet when we dine at a restaurant, garlic is added without asking. Recently we ate twice at Jaleo -- they informed us that no non-garlic mashed potatoes are prepared routinely. The Jaleo chef graciously prepared some (spectacular) "plain" mashed potatoes. The dipping oil for bread at Jaleo also automatically comes with a fat garlic clove parked in the middle of the oil. My husband loves Jaleo's food and other similarly spicy, garlicky cuisines, and I have learned to order my way around most of the offending garlic and spices. I use bread, brown rice and potatoes to blunt the impact of spices I can almost tolerate. However, many restaurants offering garlic mashed potatoes aren't as accommodating as Jaleo. Not a question, a suggestion: give patrons a non-garlic option on plain starches! Thanks, Lois Kurowski, Fairfax

Honestly, there are so many ingredients some diners can't abide --- think cilantro, gluten and pork in addition to your reviled garlic -- I think it would be unfair to restrict chefs from avoiding them in their routine cooking (unless, of course, the restaurants are kosher or vegetarian or whatever). 

 

While I sympathize with you, I also think it would behoove you to call ahead of  your restaurant visits and 1) state your problem with garlic and 2) ask which dishes are free of the stinking rose.  I, for one, can't imagine leaving garlic out of most Spanish dishes, but if a kitchen can accomodate you, great.

 

Anyone looking for a Feast of the  Seven Fishes?  I just got off the phone with the owner of Primi Piatti downtown, who informs me his Italian restaurant is offering the seven-course spread for $59 from Dec. 15 through Dec. 30. The menu sounds great: grappa-cured striped bass, salmon ravioli with smoked salmon sauce, branzino with lemon-caper butter are among the dishes Sevino Racine plans to serve.

 

Good morning, gang. I want to let you know I'll be away Wednesday, Dec. 21, but back in the saddle again Dec. 28 at the usual time. I'm going to Vienna (as in Austria) to meet friends and family for Christmas this year. I see a lot of wiener schnitzel and gluhwein (mulled red wine) in my future.

 

What's everyone doing for the holidays?

Hello Tom, I love the chats! My husband and I will be in downtown DC around lunchtime on Sunday and I was looking for a nice casual place to sit and grab a bite. No cuisine is off limits.

You have lots of options: America Eats Tavern in Penn Quarter; Bombay Club for its Indian buffet near the White House; Cafe du Parc (near the National Christmas Tree!)  for a French repast; Floriana in Dupont Circle for homey Italian in a townhouse setting; Brasserie Beck for mussels and fries and beer ... and on and on.

 

Does that list help?

Perhaps blasphemy for this chat, Tom, but any Orlando recommendations, including the parks? Some of the Disney restaurants actually get pretty good reviews in guide books and on websites, but I'm wondering if my "go to" guy has had any memorable meals there.

I'm throwing this one out to the peanuts. It's been ages since I stood in line for the Haunted Mansion.

Hi Tom! Just wanted to thank you for the head's up about the Pie and Wine deal at Ardeo. It was a great early week date for 2 poor grad students: great service and even better pizza (the one you highlighted was especially to die for!)

Ah, thanks for the feedback about Ardeo + Bardeo. I had a ball putting together that list of affordable indulgences for the Magazine earlier this month.

 

Did you order a glass of wine from the chalkboard or the paper list? The latter has some delicious options.

Why doesn't Obelisk have a website? We like to view the site to get an idea of the menu & prices. Though not a deal breaker, if we had to choose another place in this same price range, where would you suggest? Thanks!

The owner of Obelisk, Peter Pastan, marches to his own drum. I kind of admire that. I remember asking the restaurant if it planned to replace the sign that had gone missing a few years back. "People will find us," Pastan told his staff -- and they do.

 

There's nothing quite like the narrow townhouse in Dupont Circle, but I very much like the Italian-leaning pastas and such at Palena in Cleveland Park as an alternative.

I have been charged with taking a dignitary to the nicest/best restaurant in DC. Money is no object (the more expensive the better). However, it's not supposed to be the most unusual or interesting restaurant (e.g., not Rasika or MiniBar) even if the food is very good. French cuisne a plus, but not necessary. What is the best restaurant in the DC area in terms of food and service?

You can't go wrong with Marcel's in the West End. Chef de cuisine Paul Stearman is doing his boss Robert Wiedmaier proud with a long and intriguing menu that can end, if you choose, with a billowing souffle. The wine service is terrific and I like the pools of space between the tables, too.

 

Another option is the elegant CityZen in the Mandarin Oriental, home to French Laundry alumnus Eric Ziebold and a $90 or $110 multi-course tasting menu of the chef's handiwork.

I'm hosting a post-holiday party for about 25 friends and would love to get a local restaurant to cater. The group is pretty open on food; a few aren't red meat fans and at least one is a pescatarian, but no other major restrictions. Any suggestions?

I assume you're thinking of a restaurant near you in  NE? Your first call should be to Ethiopic, the city's best source for Ethiopian food and capable of meeting your meatless request (one of the best dishes on the menu is its beautiful vegetarian sampler).

Thank you. Thank you, Thank you, Tom for the recommendation of R&R Taqueria in Columbia. We've been eating our way though the menu. I can't begin to tell you how delicious their food is. Every bite I take transports me back to Mexico.

Me too! I thought the flavors of the meat (the beef tongue in particular) and one of the soups (lamb with chickpeas)  tasted very much like the food I ate when I was in Mexico City last year.

Hey chatters, were are having some tech issues over here. I've got a few more answers from Tom that I will publish out as soon as I can, but I think it's going to be an abbreviated chat today. Sorry about this.

Tom, I wanted to give some kudos to the folks at Fogo de Chao, who deftly handled my birthday dinner. The reservation ballooned from 10 to 25 people over the course of a few weeks and they had no problem accommodating the extra additions. They also gave each person or couple at the table their own bill, which avoided a huge problem dividing a very large check. And of course the meat was fantastic.

Fogo de Chao, take a (well-deserved) bow.

On Sunday, December 4th, Bentley's, a family restaurant in Falls Church, hosted a free prime rib dinner for it's most frequent guests. It was a lovely evening and really touching to see the owner Dave and all the staff together to celebrate their 30 year anniversary. During the speeches, Dave talked about how grateful they were to everyone there for supporting them through some very difficult years. And while I had not thought of it in that way, it did make me realize that a successful restaurant is truly a partnership. So, to Dave and all the staff, Thank You for the many years of being there with hot coffee and extra whip cream for the kids in the morning and for giving this family a restaurant that we can call our family place.

Love that story. Wish there were more similar ones to share.

Do you have a favorite happy hour spot in or near Logan Circle which showcases the food as much as the drinks?

I'd be inclined to belly up to the bar at the new Pearl Dive Oyster Palace (the subject of my Sunday column) for its $5 wines and half-price draft beers. The eats include 2-for-1 oysters and a shrimp po boy with house-made pickles for $8. 

 

Happy Hour runs 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Tom - It's been a while since I've been to Zaytinya, but I'm heading that way this week. Do you have any dishes that shouldn't be missed? I know it's all good, but I get a little punch drunk trying to figure out the (large) menu! Thanks!

I dropped by Zaytinya just a few weeks ago and was impressed with everything I tried: roasted cauliflower with golden raisins and thinly sliced caper berries; lightly battered cod with almond slivers and a burst of orange; a terrific salad of raw and warm greens in a ring of hummus and crunchy with pistachios.

 

Is it lunch time yet? It is! Thanks for a lively hour. Here's wishing you all a four-star holiday or two in the coming weeks. I'll be back to take your questions afain Dec. 28.

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

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

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. His new video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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