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

Mar 12, 2014

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, your comment in response to the question about Black's made me wonder how much of your dining out involves eating at new places with an eye to reviewing them and how much is just to make sure previously reviewed restaurants are still up to snuff (or improved). On a different note, have you been to Mourayo while Yiannis, the guest chef from Rhodes, has been in the kitchen?

As you can imagine, new restaurants take up the bulk of my time. For a preview (First Bite in Food), I frequently visit a place twice; for a starred review (Dining in the Magazine) I eat at a restaurant at least three times.

 

That said, I also keep tabs on 50 or so of the most popular restaurants, partly so I can speak knowledgably about them in forums such as this one. Right now, I'm re-visting previously reviewed restaurants for my spring dining guide, which brings up the question:  Which places would you like to see me update for the May 18 collection? I have a list of 20 or so spots in mind, but I'd love suggestions from readers.

 

P.S. Haven't been to Mourayo when there's been a visiting chef. 

 

Happy Hump Day, everyone. Bring on your questions, rants and raves.

Hi Tom. I'm not sure how to handle this one. I went to a pricey steakhouse this past weekend and the waiter served me the wrong order. I don't know steak well, so I ate it and enjoyed it, thinking it was what I asked for. The problem is, I didn't notice it was the wrong item until the bill came. The dish cost double what I ordered-- it was the most expensive dish in the house! What would you have done in this case? As you can imagine, the bill was quite a bit more than what I expected.

I'm curious what you requested and what you got. Regardless, when you noticed the error on the bill, you should have flagged the server and told him that you ordered another, less expensive cut. (Did you?)

How early is too early to start talking to a restaurant about private events? I'm getting married in a little over a year (it's still under wraps while we get things settled down!), and I'm trying to price out some of my options for holding a luncheon reception at a restaurant. If I wanted to hold a reception for roughly 50 people (maybe a little more, maybe a little less), how soon should I start opening up communications with potential restaurant venues? How soon is too soon, and how late is too late?

The early bird gets the worm. You'd be surprised at how early some restaurants, especially popular ones, are booked for future engagements.

 

I'd start calling your first choices now, even if just to get an estimate of the cost.  You don't want to have to settle for your 15th choice, right?

Tom, I think you buried the lede in your tweets about your experience with American Airlines. You're a three million miler? Is that from work trips?

I've been flying with American since 1991, when I lived and worked in San Francisco. While a lot of my trips with the carrier resulted in stories, I paid for the majority of the flights myself.  I refer to them as "continuing education."

I had dinner at the Majestic in Alexandria on Saturday with 2 other people. When the food was delivered, I went to move my cocktail from the outside of the table to the inside of the table. When I moved it, it slipped out of hand, tipped over and spilled. We got it cleaned up and the waitress asked if I wanted another drink. I said yes as I had only one sip of the cocktail before I spilled it. When the check arrived, the person paying looked it over and announced that she would never eat there again as they had charged us for the spilled drink. As we were leaving I asked the waitress what the protocol was in this situation. I thought that maybe she had forgotten to remove the charge for the spilled drink. She basically said that she wasn't sure, but since we had broken the glass it was only fair that we be charged. (We were just glad we hadn't broken a plate, because I can't imagine what they would have done. Held us for ransom?) I would have pursued this with the manager, but the others in the group didn't want to cause a problem. The total bill was $220 and the drink was only $9. It seems a shame to have such a lovely evening be spoiled by such a silly mistake and a really stupid response by the waitress. What are you thoughts on this situation. I am still thinking about calling the restaurant. Thanks,

Based solely on your telling of the story -- I'm not doubting you, I just want to throw that out --  I think the server should have replaced your drink for free, since it was an accident (and lord knows, things break and get spilled in restaurants all the time). 

 

But I also think your host over-reacted.  Why didn't she take a minute and question the charge for the spilled drink? I'm betting a manager would have come to her rescue had he or she been made aware of the situation.

In his VICE article, he says that one of the "Nine Good Reasons All Cefs Hate All Food Writers" is this: "To add injury to insult, restaurants take a bigger hit than most people realize when they have a food writer come in. The three remaining expense-account critics in the country have the power to inflict more damage, but they at least pay their own way. 95% of the other writers—soon to be 100%—get comped." Is his claim that there are only three critics with expense accounts true or hyperbole? (Whatever the number actually is, we know you're one of them -- and if it is really only three, we are far more indebted to the Post and to Mr. Bezos for funding your truly excellent and unbiased work than we knew.)

Josh was exaggerating when he wrote that listicle. Off the top of my head, I can think of 50 critics who have expense accounts. 

 

To the chefs out there: What did you think of the article?

Hi Tom, could you please recommend a restaurant near IMF/WB that can accommodate 26 people for an office lunch? No need for private room but semi private dining area would be good, and bonus if they have prix fixe menu! Any cuisine is fine. Thank you!

Try Primi Piatti for Italian on I St. NW or District Commons on Pennsylvania Ave. for American.

My husband and I planned to meet a friend for a 6 pm dinner at Sei. We arrived first, and were told that we would not be seated until the party was complete--despite the fact that there were many open tables at that point. We raised it with the manager, who still refused to seat us, even when we said we wanted to order a bottle of wine. They handed us the wine list to order in the (also empty) bar. I was obviously nettled, so they finally agreed to seat us. The meal was lovely, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I was especially surprised when the manager defended the policy by saying it was "standard practice" in D.C. Is it? BTW, had the place been full, as it was by the time we departed, I would not have quibbled. But we were there, they had tables, and we were ready to order. Why on earth make us stand feet from the empty table they would eventually give us?

I'm not a big fan of waiting at the bar until my party is assembled, either, and I frequently let hosts know I'm happy to start drinking --  spending money --  the moment he or she seats me. 

 

Here's the problem: Too many diners take advantage of restaurants that allow incomplete parties to be seated.  One or two people might drift in, ask for water, don't spend money. Then another one or two folks join the group later, but still no one orders, because one or two others have yet to arrive. It's bad business for restaurants and it screws up reservations.

 

A few bad apples spoil it for everybody, unfortunately.   That said, managers should know when to bend the rules. If an incomplete party told me they were going to order a bottle of wine at the table, I'd make sure that incomplete party got seated!

I agree with you Tom - an annoying and situation, generally handled without finesse. An opposite experience. Mum and I ate at the bar at Cafe Deluxe last week. I ordered an appetizer and mum had a main for lunch. I think they thought we were going to share both as mine came out about ten mins before mum's. I'm a vegetarian so that wasn't going to happen. A manager happen to serve mum's and I mentioned, gosh - there was some mix up as mine came out so much earlier. Without batting an eyelid he offered me a small salad to eat with my mother. That was not necessary but excellent customer service.

Kudos to Cafe Deluxe.

Curious about their comment - "We couldn't make the numbers work" - what do you think it means? High rent in Georgetown? Clientele in the neighborhood unwilling to pay top dollar? Georgetown seems like a part of DC that is missing out on the restaurant boom as chefs look to other places, including Arlington.

The poster is referring to today's Dish column, in which chef John Shields relayed the news he isn't opening a restaurant in Georgetown as planned.

 

I reached out to the chef for a reply. Here's what he texted me:

 

"The rent was fine. The further we got into the space trying to lay out,  we realized we'd have to significantly increase the build-out cost  and at that point we settled on the fact that we probably couldn't generate enough revenue in the size of the space, to justify the amount of money I needed to raise."

 

 

Just wanted to send out a rave to the staff of Rose's Luxury for a fantastic birthday dinner I enjoyed there on Friday. The food, decor, and friendliness of the staff members really stood out. Can't wait to go back. While other restaurants on the block were completely empty, Rose's was full-to-bursting at 5:55pm. Whatever they are doing is working!

I'm a fan as well.

Hey tom! Wondering if you ever purposefully eavesdrop (or, for a less intrusive spin, take note of) your dining neighbors' commentary on food, service, etc while at a restaurant. And, if so, whether you take that in account when reviewing a place? On a related not, just curious if you ever read Yelp reviews?

I eavesdrop all the time. But I take what I hear with a grain of salt, because on more than a few occasions, I've had friends of restaurateurs seated next to me to add color commentary. As in, "This is the BEST French onion soup of my life, honey!" 

 

Yelp, which I peruse now and then, is a mixed bag. Some reviewers are smart and obviously experienced; a lot of them are just amateurs wanting to see their words online. Too many are over-impressed by mediocre food or the obvious.

Sure it would have been a lovely PR move for the restaurant to comp the drink, but for goodness sake, you spilled the drink and broke the glass! If a restaurant comped me something in that situation, I'd be grateful. If they didn't, I'd accept that it was my mistake in the first place. We've had this debate before - there is an assumption that restaurants are obligated to give things away for free when in any other situation that wouldn't be the case.

The diner said she had one sip of the drink. She was moving it to make way for food. She knocked the glass over and it broke. Accidents happen. I think it was dumb of the sever to say she was lucky she wasn't charged for the breakage.

Would definitely be interested in an update on Tabard Inn. That used to be a lunch favorite but I haven't been back since their upheaval last year.

Absolutely.

The nice weather made last night a busy one for restaurants and I had a very interesting staff interaction I wanted to get your take on. I was in a full restaurant and my date and I thought we'd see if there were seats at the bar available to save us the long wait. Sadly, all seats were taken at the moment. The bartender reached out and presented us drink menus, and before placing an order I told him we were really hoping to eat. Were any seats at the bar soon to be opening up in his opinion? He sighed and said with a chuckle (and loud voice, performing for those who had seats) that he had no way of knowing who was ramping up and who was getting ready to leave, and we were on our own in making that determination. We left the interaction at that, thanked the guy, and went elsewhere. There's no good that comes from arguing this with him individually, but um - isn't it the point of a good bartender to keep tabs on these things? Should he not be bothered to say if anyone is only waiting for dessert or has finished eating entirely? This is one of the new(ish) crop of no-reservations restaurants, so people looking to eat at the bar isn't exactly a rare event. A little information on his part would have kept us around for a standing drink, instead it left a bad taste in our mouth.

Talk about making a poor first impression! Not only did the guy lose a sale -- it sounded as if you were poised to stay for a drink had he been helpful -- he made it less likely for you to return, given his attitude.

 

Bar tenders might not be psychics, but good ones are surely monitoring the audience in front of them and should be able to offer a rough estimate of when a seat or two might be free.  Even this approach would have sweetened the deal:  "I'm sorry,  I have no idea. But I'll keep an eye on things and try to give you an update in a bit."

I hate this practice - I really do. I broke my back a few years back and standing without walking just hurts. While I may look fine in my fancy shoes, I do have a mild disability that is very real and I want to sit down as soon as possible. I must admit that the rare times when I was getting push back (I was a tad early but there was a totally open restaurant of tables just sitting there) I stated I had a disability and would require a chair in the lobby if I was going to have to wait. That usually prompts them to let me go ahead and get seated. Again, this is only when there are clearly tables open. If I have to wait because it is crowded, I suck it up as best as possible.

Yours is a case where rules should be bent.

Hi Tom, I live in Woodley Park and when I used to want a good dinner nearby, I had to walk a ways to places like Ardeo+Bardeo and Bistro Du Coin, or take a bus to 14th street. But now that District Kitchen is in the neighborhood I have new favorite go-to spot. They have great happy hour cocktails, a constantly changing menu, and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. Not to mention the food is always spot-on. I feel like it is really underrated and never packs a full house, is there another reason you think it flies so under the radar? I love that they treat me like a local, and I'd hate to lose my spot at the bar to new customers... but I would love to see them do more business.

I checked in on District Kitchen recently and I have to say, the food was really blah. I so wanted to like it, because Woodley Park isn't exactly brimming with good places to eat. Nothing was remarkable, though. Even the pickles were off.

I accidentally knocked over an almost-full drink at Rasika (obviously not cheap!) while trying to give a dining companion a taste of my food. Totally my fault. They comped it without question. Bravo.

Yep.

She didn't say that...

Um, kinda-sorta she did:

 

"She basically said that she wasn't sure, but since we had broken the glass it was only fair that we be charged." 

I'm surprised that you (Tom) didn't add your usual advice to talk to a manager about this at the time or contact the restaurant later with explicit detail.

I could use that line on every third question I get!

I figure if I spill it I pay for it and any replacement. If they spill it no cost for the spilled drink and the comp the replacement.

The cool thing for the restaurant to have done?  Charged for one drink only.

 

The cool thing for the host to have done? Pay for the drink that was drunk and leave a generous tip.

I'm looking forward to your take on Restaurant Eve after their retooling.

And I'm looking forward to a return engagement there.

While the bartender in question maybe could have handled it a little better, those of us who like eating at restaurant bars do get sick of people hovering behind (and over) us waiting for us to leave. All you need to know is that my party and I are in those seats. When we leave, THEN you can have them.

I sympathize with both the sitters and the standers here. What drives me nuts are those bar patrons who linger over a centimeter of suds in their beer glass and basically camp out, especially on a busy night.

I loved your first review of La Tagliatella. Please go back there, and keep the laughs coming! I can't imagine it's gotten much better over time, so that means your review can only get more entertaining!

I think I'd need to go back there with a bullet-proof vest.

I read this completely differently. I don't know how you get the implication that the waitress said they were lucky they weren't being charged for the glass. It sounds like the waitress had never had that happen before and it was awkward to raise it as they were walking out the door. If the host had raised it when the bill came, she could have looked into it, gotten a manager, etc. and it likely would have been removed from the bill. I feel really bad for waitstaff (I have never worked in a restaurant). Customers are so difficult.

Yes, SOME customers can be difficult. Just as SOME servers can be. And I say that, having worked in several restaurants in my youth.

Tom, I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago--my first visit in 20+ years--and I was surprised how much I enjoyed the city. The atmosphere was refreshing--people actually talk to one another, and were quite friendly everywhere I went. Thanks in part to your suggestion, one evening I paid a visit to Tosca Cafe, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I certainly over ordered, but nonetheless enjoyed every dish. The crispy pig tails were meaty, crispy, and tender, and the agro Dulce cut the richness perfectly. The Point Reyes Blue salad was stellar--the roasted shallots made it special. The lumaconi was rich and delicious, and the grilled lamb ribs were superb as well. No room for dessert other than their house "cappuccino", which was a nice ending. Their bar selection is second to none, and the service was on point. Another evening, I managed to grab a seat overlooking the kitchen at Wayfare Tavern, a bustling spot very getting a lot of business no doubt to the Tyler Florence name. I ate "lightly" and ordered the kobe beef tartare, as well as octopus tartar. Both were delicious if a bit under seasoned. The most interesting looking dish was a salad featuring avocado and hearts of palm. I also enjoyed a number of fresh seafood selections at Swan Oyster Depot, a well-known spot, of course, but one that lived up to the hype. The final evening, a colleague and I split the chicken salad for two. The dish exceeded my own expectations, and is something I'll remember for a while. I won't let 20 years pass before my next visit. Closer to home, I visited Pizzeria Orso for the first time, and quickly learned it will become a spot I frequent. Both the Crispy Brussels Hearts and the Slow-Roasted Cauliflower dishes were outstanding, and unexpected given the casual setting. The pizzas are exceptional--they have nailed the Neapolitan version. I also had a quick chat with Will Artley, and he came across as one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet. Finally, I'd suggest you revisit Green Pig Bistro in Arlington. The original chef de cuisine has moved on, and their menu has become much more diverse. Before I moved away from Arlington, I really grew to enjoy Green Pig, and I think they're doing many things very well. As always, I enjoy your writing and your weekly chats!

Wow. Thanks for taking the time to pen such a lively postcard! 

 

I've been following Artley on his weight loss on Facebook. Mighty impressive fellow. I'm eager to go back and taste the changes he's made at Orso. Curious, too, to check back with Green Pig Bistro.  Thanks for the prompts.

I would always take care of my customers and let them know how long for a table etc and offer the chance to eat at the bar. I also play matchmaker and for the business traveler male or female give them some info on company for those cold nights away from home. For the ladies looking for some professional companionship I was available back in the late 90's for a $1000 a hr. Many did pay the toll.

Folks, I don't make this stuff up.

Tom - My wife and I are having a special night out. Great food is really important to us. In the past we've loved Eve, Komi, Little Serow . . .This time I'm thinking of Palena, Mintwood or Vermillion. Your thoughts?

Mintwood is wonderful but on the loud side. Have you checked out Iron Gate yet? I adore the place. I'd opt for the formal dining room over the cafe at Palena. That's what you were thinking, too?

Why do your magazine reviews say "continued on page X" at the bottom of each page? Nothing else in the magazine has this carryover!

I've never noticed that! Let me investigate ...

 

(Bob Woodward, are you busy today?)

Hi Tom, Was at a mid-sized group dinner over the weekend for a friend's birthday. The restaurant was out of the first thing I ordered, and then came back ten minutes later to tell me the second thing I ordered was out, too. Then they messed up my final (third) choice. I know you always say to speak up so they can make it right, but the problem is that by then everyone else's meals had come out already (so I would have had to wait a long time and do the awkward "no, go ahead and start" thing); the food had taken a while so I was actually hungry; I was already worn out from being singled out so many times (other people's food came as ordered, and I was now the center of attention for someone else's birthday party) and when I expressed surprise at my food, the waiter just said, "Yes," and moved on. Other than not going there again, I don't feel like I have much recourse -- and speaking up wouldn't really have fixed the situation. Thoughts?

Thoughts? The restaurant should have comped your meal and brought out a salad or appetizer of your choice to keep you from being the center of attention (and from starving, of course, while everyone around you was eating).

I hate it when the food is served before we have finished our drinks. I always tell the server to wait until we have finished the aperitifs or cocktails before bringing the food. Too bad if it upsets their schedule.

Some people like food with their drinks, others don't. Best to tell the server your preference, which he or she can then communicate to the kitchen.

Is Fiola Mare walking distance to the Kennedy Center?

Not if you're wearing high heels.

I've seen a few comments on the whole spilled drinks/broken glass topic. This shouldn't even be a point of contention at any restaurant ever. Every restaurant has a line item in their budget to cover spills and comps. It's part of a good business plan. If your drink costs you $9 on the menu, it costs the restaurant less than $2 to make it. For a restaurant to risk a bad guest experience over something like that is pure foolishness on the part of the restaurant.

I'm inclined to agree.

I've got a dinner reservation for my 40th birthday at the Inn at Little Washington next month, and I'm really looking forward to it. Do you have any tips or advice on how to make the most of this once in a lifetime evening? And do you think it's worth the significant extra cash to spend the night there? Thanks so much!

I've never spent the night at the Inn, but years of meals there allow me to suggest 1) enjoying a drink in the bar before being seated in the restaurant 2)  taking dessert in the garden if the weather is nice 3) asking for a tour of the amazing kitchen after dinner and 4) including cheese in your meal, if only to be entertained by this young man.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for showing up. Let's do it again next week, same time. And ... don't spill any cocktails, ok? 

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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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