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

Dec 04, 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.

Hi Tom, Your review of Shoo-Fly in Baltimore brought me on a trip down Memory Lane. The former building occupant, Hess Shoes, was where you bought shoes for hard-to-fit feet. We lived in nearby Towson and went there all throughout childhood. We adored that slide! Clever idea to get kids excited about a trip to buy shoes. Glad they preserved it. Sorry the food is not up to par though.

Boy, I sure didn't see that hot mess coming, not from the owner of the winning Woodberry Kitchen.  One of Shoo-Fly's few charms is its design, which includes a fully-stocked playroom downstairs for the little diners. And I can see where that small slide helped get kids in the shoe store back in the day.

 

Sad news out of San Francisco this week: Judy Rodgers, chef-owner of the esteemed Zuni Cafe -- one of my favorite restaurants in the world -- and the author of  one of the best cookbooks I've ever come across, died on Monday after a long battle with cancer. She was 57. If there's any consolation, it's the chef's unerring sense of taste left behind in her recipes, foremost her roast chicken and bread salad, among the best things I've ever eaten.

 

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

Thank you for the article about Silo. I work near there, walk by the location frequently, and wondered what was going in there. Your article said they are planning to open for dinner. Do you know if they'll add lunch service later?

Silo, which will feature the cooking of veteran D.C. chef George Vetsch near Mt. Vernon Square, is expected to add lunch and brunch hours within two weeks of its Christmas-time debut, the owner tells me.

Our anniversary is on December 27 and we have found in the past that when going to top tier restaurants on this date the named chef is on holiday and the quality drops off dramatically. We love tasting menus, kitchen tables and molecular gastronomy. We like to engage if possible with the staff on cooking techniques and wine pairings. What chef do you think might not be home for the holidays and can WOW us, with creative food and drink? (And might have a reservation for 2 still available.)

I can't make any promises about who will be around or if you can get in, but I'd start by calling Minibar, the avant garde restaurant by Jose Andres; Roberto's 4 , the intimate counter experience with Roberto Donna cooking right in front of you; Rogue 24, featuring the many-coursed Progression and Journey menus and the clever compositions of R.J. Cooper;  the four-star CityZen in the Mandarin-Oriental hotel; and the freshly-minted Iron Gate Inn in Dupont Circle.

Tom, submitting early in the hopes you'll answer. I'm heading to a B&B in Annapolis with my wife this weekend for our 5 year anniversary, and am looking for a recommendation on a good dinner spot. We like just about everything. Thoughts?

It might be more casual than you want, and it doesn't take reservations, but Vin 909 is probably my favorite place to eat in Maryland's capitol.  I really enjoy the cottage setting and the food: lobster bique, terrific and interesting pizza, pasta and more. 

My parents are coming to visit and want to take us out to dinner. We love dining out with them and in the past have gone to Mintwood Place, Bourbon Steak, The Source, Komi, and Le Diplomat. We were thinking of trying Acqua Al 2, but was curious if you've been back since you're visit in 2010. We're pretty open on our choices (but prefer a place where we can get a reservation). Thanks!

I haven't been back to the Italian restaurant on the Hill since my preview.  But there are so many more interesting places to show off to mom and dad: Osteria Morini near the Navy Yard, for instance, and Casa Luca downtown.  And if you want to branch out from Italian, there are Doi Moi on 14th St. NW and the revamped Perry's in Adams Morgan to consider . 

We have an upcoming dinner reservation at Restaurant Eve to celebrate a birthday. Do you have any early thoughts on the revamped tasting room?

Sorry, I haven't been to Cathal Armstrong's signature restaurant since he planned to fine-tune it.

Tom, I had never received a check with a line for a tip for the maître d' before. How much does one give him? 5%? 10%? Why does he even deserve it when the server and busser do all the work?

Wow, I haven't seen a separate tip line for a captain in forever.  My tendency is to leave the full tip for the waiter, and let the restaurant figure out what portion, if any, should go to the maitre d' -- unless he or she has done something above and beyond the call of duty to merit an extra gratuity.

Hi Tom, After returning home late from a Thanksgiving vacation, we stopped at a local chain for dinner. It's a low key, order at counter type place. We arrived maybe 20 min before closing. They did serve us, and by boxing up the leftover half of my meal (probably a good stopping point for me anyways), I was out by closing time. To their credit, I did not feel rushed or hurried by the staff, although they had begun cleaning. I did wonder, however, if there's some rule of thumb you suggest for how close to closing it's polite/acceptable to enter and order? And how does this vary by formality of said restaurant? Thanks.

It all depends on the restaurant, the day of the week and the relative busyness of the establishment, among other factors.

 

As a diner, I'd be more likely to order near closing time in a casual rather than a fine-dining place, because the food in the former is less complex, easier to put together and deliver. Also, if there are a fair amount of customers still eating in a place, I'd feel less guilty about ordering near closing time.

 

Some people will argue, of course, that they should be able to order whatever they want, even a minute before the posted closing time. 

 

Chatters, what do you think? Restaurateurs, any thoughts on the matter?

Tom, What did DGS Deli do/change to warrant going from two stars to 2 1/2 stars? I enjoyed my meal there, but I was just curious as to what changed for you.

I felt both the cooking and the overall experience had become more consistent at DGS.  And what was good was "good-to-excellent."

Hi Tom, The wife and I are heading up to Philadelphia this weekend. Wondering if you had any good recommendations for dinner. We have been to Morimoto once before and have also heard good things about Serpico. Thanks!

LOVE Serpico. You should also try to get a seat at Zahav, a modern Israeli restaurant. Here's my last dispatch from one of my favorite restaurant cities.

So on your trip to Korea, how was the airline food? On international service (and extra-especially in business/first), airlines seem to be putting more effort into the meal options - I'm curious if anything caught your attention.

I was fortunate. I got upgraded to business class on my American Airlines flight from Dallas to Seoul. (I've flown almost 3 million miles with the carrier since 1991.)  Out of curiosity, I ordered the bibimbap, which came with all sorts of delicious banchan, or side dishes. Lots of pickled items, which is a good thing at 30,000 feet. A later meal of chilled noodles and shrimp was also quite good.

I don't understand why you bothered with last week's Sunday Mag review. First, you feature an out-of-market restaurant. I assume the rationale is the Post has some distribution in Baltimore, and that DCers often visit B'more. But, rather than providing us with an idea of where to eat in Charm City, you essentially say it's a place to avoid. In essence, then, you've dedicated two full pages to tell readers you don't like a restaurant the vast majority have never heard of, in a city in which the majority don't live ... What's the point?? Why not either review a restaurant in the DC area, or at least one in the Baltimore area that's worth visiting?

I wrote about Shoo-Fly because:

 

1) The Post has wide readership, including Baltimore.

 

2) The owner is a big deal in the food world, or at least within the Mid-Atlantic region.

 

3) Readers expect me to taste-test places for them. Wouldn't you rather have me spend the time/effort/money on a place of interest, especially if it's not satisfying?

 

 4) I endeavor to offer a mix of cuisines, locations, star ratings and price points from week to week.  Bad reviews are part of the mix.

 

Which cookbook? Hearing you rave about both the cafe and cookbook makes me want to check it out.

It's the "Zuni Cafe Cookbook," published in 2002. If my house were in flames, I would try to rescue that collection of great recipes.

What a rare and fabulous restaurant Rogue24 is. Cutting edge without being pretentious at all. How come this restaurant is not on the national spotlight? It gives much more value then MiniBar and throughs caution to the wind when it comes to creativity. The staff was so sincere and giving. You all in DC have a gem buried in the ground!

I wouldn't say that R.J. Cooper or his business lack for press. The WP has certainly written a fair amount about him, I think. The reason people might not be flocking to Rogue 24 in droves is because the market continues to see a steady stream of new dining adventures. Rogue 24 has a lot of competition.

First of all, We at Daikaya would like to thank you for your kind support. We also appreciate the reader who has expressed his concern for our service at Daikaya Ramen. Such constructive criticism is always helpful and greatly valued. It shows that the reader cares about us and we are grateful for that. We have been aware that our service is not where we want to be. Perhaps it's the fast paced nature of the ramen shop that makes us less attentive to our customers but there is no excuse. We ask for forgiveness for our shortcomings while we work to improve our service both at the Ramen shop and the second floor Izakaya. There are over 30 styles of regional ramen in Japan, and we decided to serve traditional Sapporo Ramen at Daikaya. To achieve this goal, we traveled to Sapporo to train under our ramen master Ishida-san who has helped open more than 100 independent ramen stores across Japan. During our one month research and training trip to Sapporo, we developed Daikaya reman recipe under the guidance of our master. Our noodles are custom made in Sapporo to our specification. Of course importing noodles cost more but we feel being able to serve genuine sapporo noodle is worth the cost. Our shio, shoyu, and miso ramen are made following traditional Sapporo ramen methods. Our shio ramen is meant to showcase the delicate yet complex sapporo style chintan stock. Shoyu ramen is about the deep caramel like flavor of dark soy sauce. We decided to use mugi-miso (miso with barley) for our miso ramen for the fragrant and complex nature of this miso from south of Japan. Our Spicy Miso and our Vegetable Ramen are specially developed for our customers in the USA as we had many requests from enthusiastic ramen lovers for these two items. We are pleased that the reader likes our Spicy Miso Ramen. Sincerely, Daisuke

Thanks for taking the time to respond to the unhappy customer, sir. Happy to post your -- and any other restaurant operators' -- missive following complaints on this chat.

In last week's on-line chat you referenced several chefs who were involved in developing "pop-ups." What is a pop-up?

A pop-up is a dining experience that is generally temporary in nature and is sometimes staged in other than an actual restaurant (or in a venue that's not the chef's permament roost).  Example: a chef is six months away from opening a place of his or her own but wants to preview his food in advance. A friend or colleague might loan him the space for a set amount of time.

A few months ago you gave Etto 3 stars, but you haven't mentioned it in a chat since then. Is it still 3-star worthy?

Well, you can't blame a critic for trying to spread the love around, can you? I have no reason to believe Etto has dipped in quality, although some readers tell me they're not as enamored of the pizzas as I am.

Hi Tom! Just moved to the area and met a food friend! I'm so excited since my husband keeps kosher and restaurants like little serow are usually off the list. Can you help us plan for our visit to the restaurant? Is there a strategy for waiting in line, best night to go, etc? We'd love your guidance! ps. followed your chats even while living abroad - thank you!!

I'd go earlier rather than later in the week and be in line by 4:50 p.m. if you're trying to get in at opening time (5:30).  At least that's been my game plan at Johnny Monis's Thai treasure.

That's an understatement, isn't it? You may not notice what maitre d's do if the house is running smoothly, but that's a sign they're doing their jobs well. As an aside, we went out to celebrate my passing a credentialing test to a very nice local restaurant this weekend, and the maitre d who seated us let my 5-year-old know that "today's crayon selections are orange, green, and purple."

Name names! Who said that to your child? Awesome.

 

I didn't mean to slight any dining room supervisors with my response. But I don't think diners should be put in the position of figuring out who did what and how much of a thanks each service worker should get.

 

I was out enjoying a meal with two family members this past week at Matchbox in Merrifield. The food, beverages, and service were all good. Right up until the point where the waiter knocked over a full glass of water on to one of my family members, spilling it all over their pants and in to their purse. I'm not talking a couple of drops, the full glass, all over them. The manager came over and offered to comp the wine. I appreciated the gesture, but my dining partners believed that the entire check, or at least the food for the person who had been inconvenienced should have been comped as well. Their point was that now the person had to go home and change, and basically the rest of the day had been screwed up due to the spill. I can see their point, but I was wondering: Is there any standard for this kind of situation? What would your expectations have been?

If I'm getting all the facts right here, at a minimum, the manager should have removed the soaked diner's portion of the bill.  Picking up the whole tab would have been super-generous, but two of you enjoyed the experience and remained dry throughout, so why should your meals be comped?

"Wouldn't you rather have me spend the time/effort/money on a place of interest, especially if it's not satisfying?" I'm not sure how typical I am of your readers .... but, for me the answer to that question is: NO. If you're going to review an out-of-town restaurant, I would rather get insight on where to go, rather than what to avoid. Being that I live in DC, and am reading a DC newspaper, not eating at a Baltimore restaurant is my default position! If you're going to point out a Baltimore restaurant to me, it would be more helpful if it were about someplace that's worth the trip.

I hear you. But sometimes it's important to know where *not* to go, especially if the restaurant is the product of an acclaimed chef.

 

Let's agree to disagree. It's not as if do even three "poor" out-of-town reviews a year. Consider the big picture.

than is, say, The Inn at Little Washington, and I don't see people objecting to Tom's covering The Inn.

Thanks for the support, but note that the Inn costs hundreds of dollars more per person than Shoo-Fly.

I was struck by the differences between the reviews of Shoo-Fly by yourself (who I always trust) and Todd K at the Washingtonian (which I hardly ever read). What do you think led to the vastly different experiences? Just different tastes? Different expectations?

For starters, I believe Todd ate there just once, and I'm not sure when he visited. (Shoo-Fly is fairly new.) His was a first, albeit positive, impression. I went multiple times and as recently as last month. My meals actually got worse over time.

Aren't maitres d' more highly paid than waitstaff?

Generally. But like waiters, they count on gratuties for a living.

Wow - until you referenced it last week, I had no idea there was such turmoil going on with this place. Too bad - one of the better restaurants to go to during the holidays (such a warm, cozy feeling when I've been there in the past).

Yep. But just across the street is a *new* "warm, cozy" destination: Iron Gate, with food by Tony Chittum, late of the very good Vermilion in Old Town.

So should the restaurant have paid for gasoline for the trip home to change? This is a ridiculous claim. Comping the soaked person's meal would have been fair, but the rest of these assumptions are what makes restaurant workers' jobs so hard.

Interesting, isn't it, how consumer expectations in the hospitality trade differ so much from other businesses. People ask of their restaurants a lot more than they do of other services in their lives. Can you imagine expecting a free cleaning from your dentist or a gratis will from your lawyer if they made a non-life-threatening mistake?

From my point of view as a manager, the main component of staying open late is consistency. If the kitchen is open until 1AM, then it has to be open until then every time. And generally even a few minutes after. This consistency helps build business. There are lots of ways to start cleaning without disrupting the customer, but the key is to provide a comfortable dining space no matter the time.

I bet people like your restaurant.

Years ago I was at the Clyde's that used to be in Friendship Heights center. A waitress spilled ice water all over me. They let me buy a new shirt andpair of khakis and paid for them. That was more than fair. Perfect.

Generous! (And better water than wine or coffee, right?)

Tom, my request to late diners would simply be this: Look around you. Do you see 3 or 4 tables eating entrees and a handful of people at the bar? The restaurant should be happy to seat you. Are you the only two guests in the restaurant? Maybe think again about sitting down, even if you are there 10 minutes before the kitchen closes. I think a lot of customers don't realize in situations like that, the restaurant is losing money, not gaining business. The kitchen staff, pastry staff, bussers, dishwashers, waiters, bartenders, managers and cleaners all have to stay on the clock.

Thanks for chiming in.

I am a reader from Portland, Oregon who travels frequently and reads your reviews and this chat regularly. I appreciate your postcards, local reviews as well as out of town coverage. I believe that's what defines "world class". Keep it up!

Bless you! (And what are you doing up so early?)

Hi Tom - totally agree with you on a single tip for the server and let the restaurant sort out who gets what. When I waited tables, that was the policy - one tip and then we'd tip-out to bartenders, bussers etc. Most people don't know who is doing exactly what anyway, so how would you know how much to tip each one?

My thinking, too.

Why does everyone want a free meal? It was a glass of water. It happens. It isn't a major error, intentional or negligent. It doesn't mean that you didn't enjoy the food.

Right, but I can see instances where a glass of water could ruin someone's day. What if the person were off to catch a flight or in the middle of a business interview? 

A friend and I once showed up at 8:00pm at a family-style restaurant near Lancaster, PA. We were scolded by the hostess for showing up so late and expecting to be fed, but then a gentleman came out and apologized and assured us we could have dinner. I guess the definition of "late" is different in rural areas!

Ha!

Hello Tom, Me and six of my friends want to do a nice holiday dinner to celebrate the season. We wanted to do Rose Luxry but they can't accommodate parties greater than 5. Any suggestions of somewhere fun for this food loving group? Thanks so much!

Really? I sat next to a party of eight or nine the last time I was there. Then again, I think they knew the chef.

 

Another place of interest to consider: Buck's Fishing & Camping. It isn't new, but I love that long communal table that runs down the middle of the amber-lit room.  Very cozy.

As I stated, I was fine with what they comped, and was wondering about any standard expectations, since my dining partners had a different view. I might add, spilling ice cold water on someone on a cold day in an outdoor shopping venue actually does ruin the day.

I sympathize.

I should say it was the middle of the day and I clearly could not work the rest of the day soaked. I was part of alarge party including some regulars. And I did not take advantage - bought items comparable to what was soaked, from the handy Gap across the street. No need to post, but I thought you might be interested, Tom.

I think we're all interested. Thanks for writing back.

Six retired women are looking for a restaurant for a celebratory lunch in DC. No food limitations. Don't want to completely blow our retirement funds, but no need to be overly frugal either.

Want to be adventurous? Try Ambar on the Hill. The Balkan restaurant is gracious and delicious and offers great multi-course lunch deals for around $15.

As a person who ate out 100% of the time from age 20 to 35, and now travels alone on business, closing time is all about the service attitude; hospitality. Last Winter was harsh in New England, a lot of snow. On a business trip out of season in Maine, many businesses were simply closed. After a long work day, finding an open short order restaurant was an oasis for me, and the glass of wine and hot sandwich perfect for the weary traveler. Yes, that restaurant rated a five star review on tripadvisor. It is a pleasant memory at this time. Was my party of one a fantastic windfall for the house? Not so much. Overall, I'd say it is always a negotiation. Feeling out the house should be part of the process of ordering. That said, a customer turned away is a lost opportunity to make a friend.

So much wisdom in so few words.  I appreciate your feedback.

 

Gang, time to go. Thanks for spending the hour with me and let's do it again next week, same time. 

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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