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

Feb 06, 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, I've been trying to submit this several times, but there seems to be some tech glitches. I hope you read this. Ever since your recommendation came out in one of your dining guides, my husband and I have frequented and love Le Chaumiere. We love the food there and especially enjoy the cozy setting during the colder months. We recently went last Friday, and are very rattled by our experience. The food was wonderful as usual. Our waiter remembered us...the evening started off great! But our final bill was a bad surprise. As two people, we ordered 1 appetizer, 2 entrees, 1 dessert, and wine/coffee. We were pleasantly surprised when the waiter delivered our appetizer and dessert because he actually plated them separately for us. The appetizer consisted of 6 oysters that he split 3/3 on our plates. We thought this was a very thoughtful gesture. However, when we got the bill, we noticed a surcharge for our appetizer AND dessert. As two ppl, we usually can never actually eat two whole appetizers and two desserts along w/ two entrees in one sitting. Additionally, a dessert is an indulgence and usually meant for sharing with the table. I never like to eat an entire dessert on my own. So, we questioned the bill to the manager (the lady/hostess that's always in the front). FYI, our waiter seemed to have disappeared. She said that this is what they charge for shared items. NOWHERE on the menu does it indicate that there is a surcharge for split items nor did anyone inform us of this. I completely understand a surcharge for split entrees, but we each ordered our own entree. In any case, I was very upset that they tried to slide this by us. She agreed to change the appetizer amount, but did not change the dessert amount. I didn't bother to argue it. Then, it got even worse, b/c when we got the new bill (from a different mgr), the appetizer was only marked down from $16 to $14, when the menu clearly stated $12.95. We questioned this again, and the said mgr repeated that the price on the menu was in fact $14. We did not push it any further because I didn't want to cause a scene by asking to see the menu and arguing. I did, however, discretely check the menu again upon leaving to confirm the price, and I was correct. I didn't say anything, but I made sure that I was going to let you know what happened with this cluster of an evening. I really really love the food at Le Chaumiere, and what they did to us (as repeat customers) was just bad bad business, and only to make a few extra bucks. It has really made us rethink visiting again. What do you think of this and what would you have done? On top of that, I'm 37 weeks pregnant, and this was the place we chose as our last dinner out.

No one likes surprises. La Chaumiere -- not as delicious as when I last reviewed it, nor as gracious -- should have spelled out any split charges on its menu or at the beginning of the meal. 

 

I'm not against restaurants charging for dividing dishes, mind you, but the way Le Chaumiere handled the situation leaves a sour taste in my mouth, too.

 

P.S. For your next French outing, consider Marcel's (for a splurge) or Montmarte or Chez Billy (for bistro cooking). Chez Billy, by the way, just added a bunch of new dishes to its menu -- and counts a wood-burning fireplace upstairs.

 

Good morning, gang. Thanks for joining me for another 60 minutes or so of restaurant talk. Have you heard about the bar Derek Brown is opening this spring?  Or the not-so-satisfying changes at Morton's downtown?  For this Sunday's review in the Magazine, I head to Annapolis and Vin 909 Winecafe, a dreadful name for a gem of a place to eat pizza, pasta and more.

 

Let's rock and roll.

I've been following your tweets about PR - any big winners we shouldn't miss when we go at the end of Feb? Will there be a Postcard? Thanks!

No Postcard from Tom from this trip. I managed to sample about seven restaurants in my four days in San Juan, and the ones that impressed me the most were Jose Enrique for really good takes on island food; the family-run El Pescador for simply prepared fish; and Mi Casa by Jose Andres in Dorado, about a 30-minute drive from San Juan. The last, in a lush Ritz-Carlton resort, opened in mid-December. ( If you're taking a taxi over, as I did, prepare for some sticker shock: $140 round trip! )

Hi Tom--love the chats and your recommendations. I am in charge of a dinner for 6 next Friday, Feb. 15, for a couple from LA and a couple from China. I've been asked to pick a very "DC" place; but, of course, I want good food, too. My first thought was the Oval Room, but they don't have availability. Can you recommend some other options similar to that, in terms of type of cuisine, ambience, and quality of experience? (Bombay Club and Rasika are out, as some of the guests have been to those before and want a new place.) Preferred location is in central DC (e.g., Penn Quarter, Farragut, West End, Dupont). Thank you!!

You do realize that Feb. 15 is the day after Valentine's Day and likely to be just as busy, if not busier than Feb. 14? Just a friendly reminder ...

 

Places that say DC to me include Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan, Obelisk in Dupont Circle, Bourbon Steak  ("Good evening, Secretary of State Kerry") in Georgetown and Et Voila!, the Belgian charmer in the Palisades where Bill and Hill (or should that be Hill and Bill?) have been known to dine together.

 

Tom, I'm idly curious: every time a chatter asks for a recommendation at this restaurant, you mention the "silken black cod". Is "silken" actually on the menu, or just an irresistable sense memory?

Ha! "Silken" is not part of the menu's description. I take the blame (?) for the adjective.

Tom, My husband and I are moving from DC very soon. We've really enjoyed a lot of great DC restuarents. Rogue 24, Cityzen, Rasika, Inn at Little Washington, Komi... Is there any place that we simply can't miss before we head out? Thanks

You've packed in some nice restaurants in your time here.

 

If you've never been, you owe it to yourselves to try the omakase (chef's choice)  in the rear of Sushi Taro, the southern fare at Vidalia, drinks at the Columbia Room near the convention center and the French-accented cooking of Cedric Maupillier at Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan.  There are many other names I could add to your farewell tour, but that's the  list that comes to mind at the moment.

Generally, I love Restaurant Week because I love to eat out and it can be a challenge to get folks together when there are lots of other events going on. However, I have to chide many of the restaurants participating in Restaurant Week for not putting menus on their Web sites. It's incredibly disappointing to make a reservation at a place I've always wanted to try, only to get there and find out I only have 2 choices for each course and neither is appealing. Honestly, if you're going to participate in this promotion, do a modest amount of planning ahead. I did a RW lunch and dinner yesterday and both establishments had their menus posted. Made it easy to see that there was something for everyone in my group and we all appreciated being able to "preview" the menu before we dropped our hard-earned cash there. Seriously - this is your restaurants FIRST first impression. A RW customer could easily become a regular if you treat them well, and that includes offering us the ability to make an informed choice.

I couldn't have typed that any better than you did.

 

Catch that, DC restaurants?

Hi Tom, any thoughts on Bastille in Old Town Alexandria? I'm thinking of a belated Valentine's dinner there, specifically for their Sunday supper special, which is a great deal for 2 grad students, but I was wondering if the food was good and if the ambiance lends itself to intimacy. Thanks!

Bastille is ... pleasant enough. I might be tempted to return, not just to catch up with new sommelier Mark Slater, but if there were a promotion involved. 

 

What exactly are you looking for? Something French? A value? Romantic environs?  A destination I always look forward to in Virginia is Bistro L'Hermitage in Woodbridge.  Pleasant drive, solid cooking, swell service.

Someone could make a fortune helping restaurants keep their websites current. I need to run an errand and decided to check out the restaurants in the area. I was shocked by what I found. The front page of one website shows, "2011 Holiday Offerings". If I am not mistaken it is 2013. Another, was a bit better with their Valentines Day 2012 Specials... at least it is only one year off. With these types of things dating their website, how can I take anything else to be correct or up to date?

You are preaching to the choir, friend.

I've never seen a restaurant split appetizers or desserts into two plates. The only reason I can think is maybe they gave a little extra (more than what would normally come- an extra oyster, bigger (total) piece of cake or whatever the dessert was), which would cause the up charge. But, the OP is right. Appetizers and desserts are quite frequently shared and can be eaten from one plate. I wonder if they specifically noted they'd be splitting them, or if they just ordered them without mentioning it (not that it excuses the behavior of the restaurant).

You are right. One reason some restaurants charge split fees is because they sometimes offer slightly larger portions (for better presentation, etc.) 

 

Bottom line: If a restaurant has split charges, they need to post 'em. And if diners plan to share a dish, it's best if they let a waiter know.

My husband scored us reservations at Fiola for my birthday next month. I love Italian food, and I'm already drooling over the menu's pasta selections. What's not to miss?

Like many good restaurants, Fiola changes its menu with regularity. That said, you should hope to find veal Milanese, smoked potato agnolotti, meatballs -- fine ones made with ground pork, veal and beef -- and the coil-shaped sweet bread called ensaimada with a center that suggests creme brulee. Those dishes are among my many favorites from chef Fabio Trabocchi.

Have you done a postcard on dining in Santiago, Chile? We're going there soon, and I was wondering about places to eat. Thanks!

Chile is on my bucket list. Perhaps a fellow chatter can help out?

I almost always split these and have never seen a charge for doing so. No matter how good the food is, service like that is not worth it.

Frankly, the lack of graciousness from the manager bothers me more than the unannounced charge.

Tom - any idea on the average wait time at Little Serow on a Friday? Does a line form before opening just to put your name in? What about earlier in the week like a Tuesday? Just want to make sure I have reasonable expectations and can plan something to do while I wait.

I've always been in line at least 30 minutes ahead of opening, usually mid-week, and not had a problem being seated at 5:30. What has the experience of others been at my favorite source for Thai?

Hey Tom- What are your thoughts on the new Shaw/Logan Circle restaurant opening this week, Table? Do you know what kind of price range it will be in? I noticed they do not have prices with their online menus...one of my pet peeves! It always make me think they are hiding something.... Thanks!

Hang tight. I'm previewing the latest from chef Frederick De Pue in my First Bite column next week. Main courses at Table run $14 to $38. A three-course meal with (good) wine is about $90 a person.

Scored Komi reservations. Anything I should know before I go? Dress code?

Congrats on getting a table at the modern Greek restaurant.

 

1) Make sure you aren't maxed out on your credit card.

2) Do not even think of taking pictures of the food.

3) Surrender control. Komi no longer offers a menu, even a dinner's end.

4) The goat may be the best you've ever had.

 

 

Tom - You went to NOLA a few weeks ago. Is it safe to assume you'll be doing a Postcard from there? When? I'm going in a few weeks and would love some fresh info.

I went to New Orleans for a wedding -- which turned out to be the best food I had in three days in the city. The groom got John Currance, the chef of the Beard-approved City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, to cater the event. 

 

Otherwise, and I'm sad to type this, the food and (especially) the service at some of the new spots -- R'evolution, Booty's Street Food -- was just not very memorable.  An exception: Borgne, where I had some terrific fried oysters  and a robust alligator soup, albeit it in one of the most sterile dining rooms I've come across in New Orleans.

Tom, have you ever thought about doing a review of take out and delivery options in DC? Yes, I realize that you do restaurant reviews, and yes, I realize that a large part of your reviews cover service, ambiance, noise level, etc. But lately a lot of good restaurants are starting to offer take out and/or delivery, and there's at least one or two online ordering places that you can get take out from pretty much anywhere. I love going to a restaurant as much as the next guy or gal, but I would also like to know where to actually get good food when I just want it delivered (especially if I'm still at work).

Great idea! Send your suggestions here. I'm going to be unpacking a *lot* of boxes in the near future and could use a break from restaurants (well, at least going to them. I wouldn't mind having them come to me for a change).

Ex-pat Northern Virginia reader here, now living in Buckinghamshire, UK - Just had to say thanks for your great food writing - your London postcard brought us the Harwood Arms in Fulham, now one of our favorite pubs when we want a nice lunch or dinner out with friends. Excellent food and atmosphere...and a Michelin star! Even though I moved out of the US nearly four years ago, I still enjoy reading your reviews, restaurant lists and DC-related food articles. I always read the chat after the fact, too. Just wanted to let you know your efforts are read and enjoyed, even by folks far from DC. Take care...

How kind of you to take the time to write. That London trip was one of my best. Is there anything new across the pond that you think we should know about?

What about the announcement that Minibar is opening Barmini? Any chance you'll give this place a fair shot- unlike what you did with Minibar? Any repsonse to the criticism you received from a New York restaurant reviewer for only going once?

Barmini, for those who weren't invited to its opening in Penn Quarter, is the latest attraction from chef Jose Andres.

 

I've explained my original and admittedly early review of Minibar several times already:  Same basic concept as before -- same name, similar menu --  just in new wrapping.  Also, not really concerned what other critics think of my strategy.

District Kitchen or New Heights?

For ... a date? Business? Because you don't feel like cooking?  I'm leaning toward New Heights.

"if diners plan to share a dish, it's best if they let a waiter know" I assume you mean if they care to have separate plates? When I've shared an appetizer, we generally just move a spoonful to the other person's plate.

Right. If you want separate plates. Thanks for allowing me the chance to clarify.

Why is it you can answer Chili and PR questions but not something as close as NYC??

Because:

 

1) I like to mix things up.

 

2) I might not have an answer for you.

 

3) I get a thousand questions and comments here and not every one can be addressed.

I had lunch at the Oval Room yesterday and found it...fine, but nothing very special. The vegetarian entree on the menu, a pasta/cauliflower dish, seemed to rely too much on copious quantities of butter for flavor. The key lime cheesecake dessert was too cold and, again, nothing special. Did I just have bad luck or is the Oval Room sliding a bit? Another note: I know space is tight, but those restrooms are WAY overdue for an update. The ladies' room has as much charm -- and space -- as an airplane lavatory.

Thanks for the field report, which surprises me. The Oval Room under chef Tony Conte, who is dividing his time between that restaurant and its sibling in Penn Quarter, 701, has long been a favorite of mine.

Hi Tom, I am waiter at a restaurant in a downtown restaurant participating in restaurant week. my question is..do you think that we should allow a party of 2 to split one meal. I feel that my customers are already receiving a deal with the promotion and that splitting a meal is taking advantage of me and the other waiters.

Give some diners an inch and they take a mile ...

 

Good grief! NO, NO, NO to the idea of two people sharing a promotional menu. I'm mean, that is so cheap and thoughtless.

I've had the same experience as you, but haven't tried on a weekend night. Got in line by 5:00 (actually got to the area earlier to check the line and went and had a drink at a bar a few doors down since not many people were there), and was seated at 5:30.

Cool.

Unpacking "lots" of boxes....Are you getting married? If so, congratulations!

Moving to a new 'hood!

Oh Tom, will you be my valentine? I've always loved you, but now my love for you is transcendent. Thank you for pointing out one of the most annoying things that diners do these days: taking photos of their food. Kisses! Mwa!

Will you love me less if I told you I've joined the ranks of the great unwashed, and that I, too, sometimes take pictures of what I eat? (I'm not as bad as the guy at Ambar, though, who basically had a Hollywood-worthy set-up to record everything he ate and drink for two hours! I felt sorry for his date, who seemed to be forgotten in the process.)

Tom, I just wanted to share the wonderful experience my colleague and I had at Yusho in Chicago tonight, and thank you for the recommendation in your recent Chicago Passport. This is my first work trip as a consultant for my firm (and my first time to Chicago) so this experience definitely made it memorable. The food and atmosphere were both outstanding, especially the tuna and stuffed squid (on special that night). Every dish was so unique with so many different flavors and textures, that both me and my colleague (who is also a Tom fan) kept raving about you all night. They also have a different cocktail on tap every night and are big fans of the small plates, so it's fun to see these trends outside of DC. Thanks for making our long and tiring work trip a little more exciting!

You are welcome!  And lucky you. Chicago is one of the country's best restaurant towns.

 

Feedback such as yours reminds me of one of the great plusses of my job: interaction with readers.

 

Postcard from Tom: Chicago

I live across the street and see the line every day. Earlier in the week get there at 5. Later in the week get there earlier. The same advice goes for nasty and nice weather.

Thank you, Gladys Kravitz!

Any update on when Taco Bamba is going to be opening in Falls Church? Last I heard it was late Fall 2012.

A spokeswoman for chef Victor Albisu's project says "major construction delays" have pushed back the opening to mid-March.

Tom, I'm a loyal chat reader, but don't remember seeing you answer this question. I know you seldom have the chance to cook, but do you consider yourself a good cook? Would your friends say that you are good cook (if they knew their answer would not get them booted from the Sietsema dining companion rolls)? And when I say "good" I don't mean in comparison to Michel Richard, but rather in just the common usage of the word... Thanks, and keep up the good work (the reviews and chats definitely qualify)!

The truth? I was a better cook earlier in my career, when I was testing recipes nonstop and spending as much time in the kitchen as the office. There's not much time to chop and stir when you're eating out an average of 10 meals a week. Cooking is like a foreign language; if you don't practice, you get rusty.  Yet another reason I'm looking forward to a new home: the chance to reacquaint myself with knives and food processors and ovens.

Can you recommend a Brazilian/South American restaurant for a quiet lunch for a book club meeting? DC, VA, MD -- all okay. Thanks -- Barbara

Here in DC, there's the sprawling, meat-focused Fogo de Chao. Maybe it counts a (relatively peaceful) corner for you?  It's been awhile since I dropped by for a sword of beef.  Classier, if not as delicious, is the similarly protein-focused Chima in Tysons Corner.

Amen, sister. I had the same thought when I was recently at the Oval Room. There's a real disconnect between the elegant dining area and the tired, cramped little restroom.

I agree (well, speaking from the male perspective).

Believe it or not in this day and age there are many restaurateurs that still do not "get" the power of the web. Sites and social media alike. If you have a site-KEEP UP WITH IT. If you have social media pages-USE THEM. Wisely. Food items spelled wrong? Blurry, badly instagrammed photos? Complaining about patrons? This is the 1st impression before anyone even steps into the space! Thinking you are saving money to keep these things updated and done properly could be actually costing you money. Giving someone the power of your branding is not something to be scoffed at. Rant concluded. Where are you moving Tom? IYO, why do you think some restaurants open to instant success and others have to claw their way to the forefront? Ironically, I recently saw a picture of you at a local establishment. Used in fact for staff to identify you. And they had your name spelled WRONG. Ugh. What is the criteria to dine with you on one of your visits and be a guest critic?

I'm not in the market for a guest critic, but I do occasionally invite strangers (friends of friends of friends usually) to dine with me. A perk of the job: it doesn't matter who I eat with, so why not ask someone interesting?   This might sound odd, but food people tend to be my last choice. The last thing I want to talk about at day's end is food.

Are you leaving? Did I miss something?

I'm staying in the city. But I'm saying good-bye to Logan Circle, or what my real estate agent 12 years ago called "Dupont Circle East." 

Tom, as a server at one the the area's established restaurants, it is easier to split a dish for a couple than it is to expect them to share off of one plate. Part of the dining experience is to enjoy the food without concern over who gets the last bite, or if food may fall from plate to mouth. Now, the particular establishment I work at does not charge for splitting, it is considered a gesture to the diners.

Thanks for sharing.

I'm curious, my husband and I frequently order a single dessert (to share) and ask for two forks (or spoons). Is this gauche?

It is not.

There are a ton of restaurants at La Vega Central Market- go to the seafood area and just pick one. Also- there are a bunch of new, small restaurants in houses popping up- can't remember the name of the one I went to right now but it was near the garment district of Santiago. If you're in Chile for more than one or two days- you need to go to Valparaiso to eat. The food is fantastic. Also try the Completo completo (hot dogs with guacamole, & saurkraut, tomatos, etc) & do not miss the empanadas.

Reader to the rescue!

Tom, you've broken my heart. And here I thought we were the marriage of true minds. Yet you have admitted impediments by photographing your food. Well, farewell, Tom. I guess it wasn't the real thing, after all, and I shall be dateless (again) on Valentine's Day.....

Please! Don't leave me! Give me another chance and I'll leave my Iphone at home ...

Also because we are sick unto death of talking about that city north of us with the ego problem?

Exactly!

Sorry for not being clear. We are two friends, having dinner out, and I wanted to ask The Oracle (that's you, Tom).

I first  read the subject line as "reflux."

 

Time for new eye-wear!

Whew! I thought you were referring to the Washington Post as your "home" and not your actual residence. Glad to hear we'll still be reading your wonderful restaurant criticism.

Yep, I'm staying put. And thanks for having me.

 

That's it for today, folks. See you next Wednesday at 11 a.m.

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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