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

Feb 13, 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.

I'm sure you have answered this a million times but my wife wants to spend an afternoon in Baltimore - the aquarium and then dinner. In our infrequent forays into Baltimore, we have not had good luck with restaurants. We have not fallen in love with any of the restaurants in the curiously quiet Little Italy section; there are a bunch of chains around the inner harbor; and, due to the scariness of much of Baltimore, it's not a good place to go exploring. I'm thinking about something along the lines of Liberty Tavern in Arlington (or cheaper). Any ideas?

Check out the new Johnny's in Roland Park. It's a sprawling restaurant with a something-for-everyone menu and it comes with some pedigree: its owners are Tony Foreman and Cindy Wolf of Charleston acclaim. 

 

Fans of Hank’s Oyster Bar, check it out: Owner Jamie Leeds and mistress of mixology Gina Chersevani are doing a beach-themed dinner at the James Beard House in NYC March 8. Leeds says this is the first time cocktails have been featured instead of wine there, although wine will be an option for the event. Among the hors d’oeuvres are pickled trout on potato-parsnip latkes, sake-uni shooters and octopus salad; additional courses will highlight cured mackerel with horseradish cream, steamed clams with lamb neck and borlotti beans and lobster risotto. For her part, Chersevani will be serving a gin- and herb-infused punch, champagne with horseradish-infused sugar cube, and coffee-scented tequila with apricot eau-de-vie. Call 212-627-2308 for reservations; the cost is $170 for the general public, $130 for Beard members.

 

HAVE YOU HEARD? Frederik De Peu has opened a fun new restaurant in Shaw called Table, which I previewed in today’s First Bite column … Jeff Buben’s third restaurant, Woodward Table, is the subject for my Sunday Magazine column …  and Bistro Vivant in McLean has a new chef as of Monday.

 

Happy Wednesday, all. Let's start.

As long as they're not using a flash, what's the problem?

Some diners think taking pictures, flash or no, takes away from conversation and what's on the table. And some chefs think amateur photographs don't capture their dishes well, and would prefer not to see the images online.

Hi Tom, I know how you're always looking for good pie. Saturday night we had dinner at Cafe Berlin on Capitol Hill and I had the best gooseberry pie I've ever had. And I lived in England for a year, so I know gooseberry pie! It was more of a crumble than a crust, baked in a pie shape. Not too tart, not too sweet, just perfect. So hop on over and have some!

I might just do that. I haven't been to Cafe Berlin in forever. Vielen Dank!

I recently went to a popular restaurant/lounge near the Verizon Center. It was happy hour, the place was loud, and the dishes aren't delivered by the waiter/waitress..Our table of 3 ordered 3 different dishes, a chicken dish, a pork dish, and a shrimp dish. They got sent to the table next to us, a table of 2. We don't notice, because they ordered before us and we don't know what they ordered. A while goes by, enough to be noticeable, and the waitress asks us if we need anything. We tell her that we haven't gotten our food yet and she discovers that a mistake has been made. She immediately apologizes and puts in for our orders and adds an extra dish as a comp. My question is, shouldn't have the table next to us noticed that wasn't what they ordered and notified their server. We didn't even get an apology from them. What do you think is the proper conduct?

Of course the strangers next to you should have pointed out the error! Even if they ordered two of the same dishes as your party, they had to notice the extra one.   Shame on them. ( Karma, baby.)

When a waiter congratulates you for finishing your dish like you are a child...especially in a restaurant that shrank their portion sizes for restaurant week.

"Good job, Tommy!"

 

Yeah, I wouldn't care for that, either.

Please help me find a delicious veggie-burger in this city! Elephant & Castle is a great stand-by but I'd like to branch out.

Vegetable burger experts, I'll need your assistance with this one. I've not had a good meatless burger in some time.

Hi Tom Love the chats and just wanted to chime in on something. I went to Corduroy for dinner on Saturday with 6 other people, this was my first time there. The food was AMAZING (we did the tasting menu) and the bill was just as high but with bottles of wine I'm not complaining. However... why is it that restaurants don't put their name on the building. I drove past the restaurant 3 times because I was expecting their name to be on it. Instead it was the building number you could see. Prompts to go the service and the food though, now that I know where it is I'll definetely be back.

You'd think restaurants would make it easier to spot them, right?  

 

Corduroy isn't alone in the shyness department.  Have you tried to find Obelisk in Dupont Circle? The restaurant's sign has been down for years now. Owner Peter Pastan thought it was unattractive; "everybody finds us" eventually, a manager told me.

Hello, I have been following you for quite a while and those who came before you at the Washington Post. I keep the reviews in a special place until my husband and I get to check it out. My favorite LOL story is when my husband, then boyfriend decided to take me to a restaurant that was featured tn order to propose to me as a surprise. Little did he know that the review came out that very same day. Many others had the same idea about dinner. Needless to say, and without reservations...we ended up going somewhere else... I want to share one of my favorite places to eat Ethiopian with you. Soretti's is located in Burtonsville. not at all a likely place to find Ethiopian cuisine. Since we live in Olney which is very close, that is our place to go when the mood strikes. No more trips to DC...The woman who owns the restaurant is very friendly and hospitable and the food is just the best. We start with lentils sambosas and ask for the hot sauce in lieu of the balsamic vinaigrette that usually comes with it, then share a veggie combination that includes no less than six different delicious vegetable dishes and a meat combo which she lets you customize if you would like. We usually get half Beef Wot and half Lamb Alicha. We don't even need the extra bread just use the yummy piece that comes underneath this goodness. It really is a hole in the wall...you have got to try it. Yumm...

Thanks for writing. You are the second reader this week to suggest Soretti's to me.  (I've never had balsamic vinegar on my sambusas; I'll follow your lead and dip 'em in the hot sauce. And yes, fans of Ethiopian food know some of the best eating is the food-stained injera lining the tray.)

Yes, but it only takes a few seconds to whip out your phone and click. If everyone sat there being shushed while the photographer rearranged the table to optimize the photo, I could see objecting, but to me, no flash? no foul.

I hear you.

There will be 13 of us celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary. The guests of honor don't like spicy food but otherwise are fairly open to most kinds of food. We live in MoCo but could go to DC or Tysons for the right spot. A private space is preferred, but not sure that's realistic given our sized group. Suggestions?

Not sure what your budget is, but the following restaurants all have private space: Marcel's and Vidalia in the West End, Corduroy near the convention center, 1789 in Georgetown, Old Angler's Inn in Potomac, Nora in Dupont Circle and 701 in Penn Quarter.  Good luck!

Hi Tom. I am heading to Amsterdam in May for a few nights. I've never been so I wanted to see if you or the chatters have any dining recommendations for places I shouldn't miss? Any type of cuisine and price are fine (I would like to have at least one higher-end dinner). Thank you!

Like Rome, Amsterdam is one of those European cities where you have to do some homework to sort the gems from the dross.  My go-to restaurants there include  Greetje for serious Dutch fare, Caffe Toscanini for some of the best Italian (you read that right) I've ever sampled and De Kas, a glass-roofed dining room set in a park near the city's outskirts.  See my Postcard from Tom from 2008 and 2006 for more details and ideas.

BGR

That's a start, thanks.

It can't possibly be as unattractive as the attitude that "if you can't find us, you don't deserve to eat here."

One thing I admire about Mr. Pastan: He does exactly what he wants to do and doesn't deviate from his philosophy.

Last evening showed up with my guest on time for a prearranged reservation for a birthday celebration dinner at 7:30pm at Cafe Milano; we were told there would be a "short"wait. Standing there for half hour amidst racing personnel and waiters and confusion, we asked when we might be seated only to be told to continue to wait without any movement from the two indifferent hostesses. Without further patience we left the restaurant. I would like the management to acknowledge this incompetence---and the need to live up to its highflung reputation. I will have no desire to return or recommend Cafe Milano.

Who says Cafe Milano has a "highflung" rep? Certainly not this diner. I go there mostly for the people-watching myself.

Is it possible the table next to them did order three dishes (especially if it was happy hour and/or a small plates kind of place -- which everything around Verizon Center is)? And even if one dish was something different than what they ordered, maybe they decided not to make a stink out of it given the restaurant was crowded. Give people the benefit of the doubt -- not everybody is out to score a free meal.

That's certainly a possibility (and I think I implied as much in my reply).

I don't mind when people want to snap a picture of something truly unique or stunningly presented -- I've done it myself a FEW times over the years. It's the people who insist on taking pictures of every dish, no matter how average looking, that push it too far. A garden salad? Steak w a side of veggies? Please. We all know what these look like.

Yeah, but you know the saying: One man's trash is another man's treasure.

Last week some friends and I dined at the Oval Room during restaurant week. The experience was fine, nothing ground shattering or outstanding. One thing that did stand out in our minds is that one of the desserts, the pbj, was horrible, almost to the point of inedible. How does a diner handle this? we contemplated telling the waiter but weren't sure how to proceed. Any suggestions? PS-i completely agree with the comments last week that the restroom is in dire need of updating-it DOES look like an airplane lavatory from the 70s!

Restaurants want diners to be honest. Only then can businesses make stuff right -- right?

 

I'd start off with some flattery ("Such a fun meal!") and weave in some helpful criticism ("The dessert, however, wasn't on par with the rest of the meal.")

Mr. S: My wife and I took my mother-in-law, who's in her 90s, to lunch there a few days ago. As always, the service was impeccable, and, without being at all obvious about it, the staff made sure my mother-in-law received any "extra' service needed. The meal was outstanding (this time I opted for the chocolate souffle and passed on the plum tart for dessert). I know the Auberge isn't cutting edge, and it may be old hat to some, but for relability, service, and atmosphere, it's hard to beat.

Which is why I put the dowager in my 2012 fall dining guide.  Merci for the feedback.

My husband and I took our two children with us to 2 Amy's about a week ago. I think their dining room chairs are not correctly weighted. Both of my children (ages 4 and 5) flipped over backward in their chair, something I had never seen before at home or any other restaurant. They are not wild kids, although I imagine my 4 year old may have been on his knees so he could more easily reach the table. Each of the 3 times I stood up (twice to catch my kids, and once to use the ladies room) my chair flipped over backward with just my winter coat on the back. I saw at least one other table with a child have a chair that flipped over backward during the meal also. I didn't see anyone hurt, but one of my kids started to cry for a minute from the shock and another fell onto another table which seriously disrupted two of our neighbors dinner also (and I felt badly about). I can't imagine they haven't noticed how problematic the stability of their chairs are when three children flip over backward during the hour we are there. What was the appropriate thing to do here? I think they are nice in being so family friendly, but it's frankly just not safe, or very relaxing, to bring kids there!

Did you say anything to a manager at Two Amy's? You'd be helping them, as well as future diners, by pointing out the problem (if no one has already noticed, which sounds hard to imagine.)

Tom, I don't know how you do this for a living. But thanks for your sacrifice. Eating and analyzing what you eat for a living is brutal. Just brutal. Anyway, for this past Restaurant Week, I tried out 'Westend Bistro', 'Bibiana', 'J&G Steakhouse', and 'District Commons' for RW lunches. Would you please rank these in order of preference, just so I can compare notes? Thanks in advance.

You mean, if I had to choose among the four, which ones I'd go to right now? Probably Westend Bistro, J & G Steakhouse, Bibiana and District Commons.

 

Do tell: What was your experience at the four?

 

Good heavens, where are these people eating? Tell me so I can avoid them.

Be nice, now!

Could Mr. Hardy use this opportunity to add some vegetarian options to the menu? I live nearby and would love to love Bistro Vivant, but the pickings are slim for those who avoid meat. Yes, traditional French cuisine isn't very vegetarian friendly, but let's use a little imagination here...

Mr. Hardy, did you hear that?

Best one I've had around here is at Bourbon Steak. They make it with quinoa, red kidney beans and it's nicely dressed up. Of course, if you're a semi-vegetarian you should get the duck-fat fries on the side -- heavenly.

Mmmmmmm. Maybe I'll head to Bourbon Steak for lunch ....

The irony is that those folks' Facebook friends are probably sick of hearing about every morsel they put in their mouths. No one actually cares what other people had for lunch--unless the other person is respected food critic with unique opportunities.

Whew! I was getting nervous there for a second.

I went to Amsterdam a few years ago, and one of my favorite food experiences was trying rijsttafel ("rice table"), an Indonesian tradition. Lots of small dishes and in a way like eating at a Korean restaurant that serves all the kim chi and sauces. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant, but I know there are multiple ones that are good.

One of the best in Amsterdam is the hot-hot-hot Tempo Doeloe.

Redwood's is not bad.

Rousing recommendation there!

 

Other chatters are suggesting the meatless patties at Union Pub on the Hill, Whitlow's in Arlington and Elevation Burger.  Of the last, a chatter writes, "There are two schools of thought on veggie burgers -- do you want something meat-like, or something that's tasty but clearly veggies and grains? Most veggie burger fans prefer one over the other. Just something to keep in mind. (Elevation's is the latter, I would say.)

 

A note of caution from one of you:  "One key is to ask whether the veggie burger is actually made at the restaurant -- you'd be surprised how many places do in fact use frozen Boca Burger-type patties!"

A friend is celebrating a special birthday and I'm tasked with finding a location-we've already been to Rasika, Eventide, Oval Room and several others often mentioned on this list...I was contemplating Vermillion...but any others?

If location isn't an issue, consider 701 in Penn Quarter, the aforementioned Table, the bistro at Restaurant Eve and the four-course menu at Rogue 24 in Shaw.

What's your take on restaurant week? My husband and I gave up on it last year after mediocre meals at Vidalia and Oval Room (this after having one of our favorite meals in D.C. at Oval Room a few months before RW). I don't think restaurants do themselves any favors by offering food and service that match the cheaper price point.

I say, if a restaurant is going to do it, do RW well: show off your best dishes, give people sufficient options, make sure your best staff is in place. Presumably, participants want folks to return, no? If the only goal is to fill seats at a less busy time of the year, restaurants are participating for the wrong reason.

Beware, it is cloyingly sweet from molasses. I cannot stand it. In Rosslyn, All Spice Cafe has a nice black bean burger. I also had a nice veggie burger at Teaism. Au Bon Pain (don't laugh) has a good black bean burger. Get it with avocado.

Thanks for the note of caution and the additional ideas.

Hi Tom, sorry to submit mid-chat, but I wanted to write you about my underwhelming Restaurant Week meal at Taberna del Alabardero. The selections were clearly second-rate (and most of the interesting items had up-charges), so that most of our group ordered the same thing. And everything was really kind of bland - not at all what I would have expected from traditional Spanish food. We were also more or less forced to order two pitchers of sangria when the waiter filled every glass to the brim from the first pitcher and only made it 3/4 of the way around the table. All in all, not a good first impression for me.

Bummer. My last few meals at Taberna del Alabardero have been similarly lackluster.  I like the place best  these days for afternoon tapas in the bar, and the oh so beautiful backdrop.

I saw in the last chat that you're moving out of Logan Circle. With 2 star restaurants dotting most every corner and lots of new restaurants on the way, I'm curious why you're leaving? And where are you moving to?

I'm going from a sweet, two-bedroom condo (with parking! And awesome neighbors! And a 5-minute commute!)  to a sweet, five-bedroom house in Crestwood (with a great kitchen! And room for wine! And enough storage for a library of cookbooks!)

We visited DC for a long weekend, and ate at Otellos, BGR, Du Pont Cafe, Pizzaria Paradiso, and the Le Pain Quotidien. How did we do? These were mostly by chance selections. We thought they were all great!

Um, you should have called me first.

I agree with the chatter who now avoids Restaurant Week. A friend and I went to Bibiana last week (I, too, had an extraordinary meal there last year, during normal business time) and while it won't turn me off from Bibiana in the future because of my prior experience, if it had been my first time there my reaction would have been "meh." The service was efficient, but very hurried, and my carbonara looked and felt thrown together (the pasta was a little TOO "al dente"). It just wasn't very tasty. So, I think I'll be avoiding all restaurants during Restaurant Week. Tom, I do think they use it as a time to fill seats, not to present their best offerings, which ironically would help them more in the future. My two cents on the subject.

I think some restaurants sign up because they feel they have to, to be competitive. But I really, really appreciated being able to eat from the full range of dishes at a number of  non-participants, including Proof, last week.

Catching up late from last week's chat, but you're up to your eyeballs in boxes...can't believe you're moving out of Logan Circle...now who does that? You are a rarity these days, as I hear it's the other way around - people itching to move into Logan Circle. What can I say? Hope it's for somewhere equally as sexy!

Don't get me wrong. I'm going to miss Logan Circle, big time.

I think the problem isn't really the chairs, nor is it unique to Two Amys. The issue is that in the winter people have heavy coats that they hang on the back of the chairs - which does change the balance and make them more prone to flipping when you stand up. Two Amys isn't the type of place to have a coat check - thanks goodness.

Has anyone else noticed how many new restaurants are adding coat hooks under their bars? A round of applause, please, for the thoughtfulness.

An Alexandria place "lost" our reservations for 6 on Saturday. It is for a birthday. Where should we go at the last minute? DC or VA would be great.

Help me help you: Budget? Location? Cuisine type?

Well, you just quashed their enjoyment of their weekend. Maybe you could have said it a bit more nicely?

I realized that -- just as I hit "send." But the host can be a little snarky now and then, right? 

Adding Vegetarian options to our upcoming Spring menu was one of many important topics at our very first meeting on Monday. Right now the vegetables available are as few as Potatoes, Root Vegetables, Spinach and Kale, which all are used in our menu, but cannot pass the garniture status. As the upcoming season permits, we will feature produce we find at our local farmers market. Stay tuned...

I assume this is coming from the owner or the new chef ...

Or just moving in together? Pretty obvious it's one or the other ... (congratulations!)

Marriage is *definitely* one of my goals for 2013. (Hint, hint.)

Is there any chance we can stem the tide of the crowd that utilizes Restaurant Week/Groupon/Living Social/other Deals i.e. half price wine bottles at one sitting? "Hi I'm angry because I can't get a reservation at your establishment on the last night of Restaurant Week and utilize my Living Social 50% off coupon that I bought three months ago! I recognize that I'll never patronize your establishment again, so please go out of your way to treat me like I'm as self important as i think, and please do it at the expense of your regular diners." Actually witnessed something like the above Sunday evening. Was mortified for the staff of the restaurant that had to interact with such a crowd cheap " insert your own choice word here" attempt to get as much as humanly possible, then tip on the discounted efforts. Complete inappropriate!

Folks, if you buy discount deals, you gotta pay attention to the end dates.  And staff always welcome getting tipped on the full value of the service. Again: karma.

I appreciate the response from the restaurant, but please keep in mind that the equivalent of the dreaded "vegetable plate," i.e., a collection of sides, is not a very satisfying or creative vegetarian option. Nor is pasta and vegetables. Please do make a real effort to have one, just ONE, interesting vegetarian dish on your menu!!

Yes, yes, yes! Or in this case, make it oui, oui, oui!

There are things that are veg besides vegetables, dude. Try any one of a million grains, nuts, fruits? I made a kale, black rice, dried fruit and nut dish with a curry vinaigrette last night that was to die for. Substantial and delicious and vegan, yet!

Got any leftovers?

That would be me Tom, Chef is cooking in the kitchen :)

Good answer!

Well, only if you are willing to forego being described as a "gracious host."

Hey, I think my track record here is ok ... right?

Tom, as the NYT had an article on the subject of no pictures of food in restaurants - I tend to agree. It seems an amateur thing to do. In today's world where many people have access to phone cameras most notably, everyone thinks they are food photographers and hence critics. To an extent, I suppose we all are when we are going out and paying for something, we are going to judge or decide whether or not it was worth it. I wouldn't mind the occasional photos where people are clearly documenting a celebration. I admit that it is helpful with the rampant small-plates phenom taking over every corner, so if you're unsure of what 12 bucks will buy you, a photo can be helpful. Other than these moments, I find if a person is so focused on taking a picture with their phones that the experience of dining out becomes more of a way to track your goings on as opposed to the occasion or the meal itself. It's like social media, there's no denying that it is taking over many people's lives, but it replaces an awful lot in terms of face to face experiences. For the record, I am a food lover - and I am absolutely more than fine eating a great dinner without snapping photos every step of the way.

Excellent post. I sometimes worry these days that we're not living in the moment anymore because we are all -- and I include myself here -- tweeting and texting 24/7.

I loved Table! Went twice with friends and had equally excellent meals and service. A very welcome addition to the neighborhood (more Shaw than Logan Circle). The second time I went on a Friday night around 6 p.m. with one other person and only a few tables were already seated. So, no reservations, but if you get there early there should be any issues.

Will Table become the new Little Serow? (I hope not!)

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for the good company, as always. See you next Wednesday @ 11 a.m. EST

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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