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

Mar 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.

Is it acceptable to ask a server to charge your phone while you're dining (supplying the power cord, of course)? Alternatively, if one sees an unused electrical outlet, is it okay to plug your phone in, so long as the phone appears to be in no one's way?

I'm going to throw this one out to any servers in the crowd today, but my hunch is the request is OK only when the restaurant isn't busy and the outlet is near-ish. Most servers have too much else to focus on to be monitoring a phone, too.

 

News flashlette:  "After almost 20 years in the (restaurant) industry, I've accumulated a lot of knowledge and think it's good to pass that on," says Peter Brett, the long-time pastry chef at the Park Hyatt hotel, home to the three-star Blue Duck Tavern.  "Teaching is something I've thought about for a long time, and it's been a big part of my job" at the hotel, which works with interns.

 

Brett is leaving what he calls "my perfect job" to teach in the Culinary Department at Stratford University in Woodbridge. His last day at BDT is Friday. Congratulations, Mr. Brett (and thanks for all the good last impressions you delivered over your successful run).

 

Happy Wednesday, gang. Bring on your rants and raves, your questions and comments.

You have mentioned Old Angler's at least twice in recent weeks, with the implication that it might be safe to give it a try. Has it gotten better? It was not being mentioned favorably in chats last year, to my recollection, and the 2007 one-star review on the WP Web site remains devastating. (I realize a lot can change in six years, but couldn't find anything more recent about it.)

All I can say at the moment is this: you can expect a (re)review of the veteran restaurant in Potomac on April 14 in the Magazine.

Tom, thanks for all the great responses you give. I have a non-food question. I've searched the internet for what constitutes "dressy" attire, but I get a million different responses. I'm trying a new restaurant this weekend and don't want to underdress. Can you help? Or is the best answer to just call the restaurant?

Even calling the restaurant can be confusing, because what's the difference between say, "nice-casual" and "no jeans or sneakers or caps" and "relaxed business?"  I've heard all three responses.

 

To me, "dressy" implies at least a jacket and nice slacks for men and a quality dress or pantsuit for a woman. Think chic cocktail party, in other words.

 

The bottom line: You want to be comfortable *and* you want to blend in with people who have (hopefully) made an effort to look good for a special night out. Better to be a bit over-dressed than not.

In my opinion, Indique in Cleveland Park serves one of the best tacos in the city. Hot and spicy - usually made with chicken. On request they also make them for vegetarians with home made cheese and withTofu for Vegans. It is especially good on a cold and snowy day. It clears up your sinuses...

I have yet to explore the full range of tacos in the District (hmmm. story idea?), but I'm always happy eating the goods at Tacos el Chilango, where my go-to taco is stuffed with pork sweetened with pineapple.

 

Chatters, care to weigh in?

Took your advice and went to Le Grenier on H Street this weekend. Thought you might like to know they've unveiled a new menu (already). Hadn't been there before, so can't say what the old one was like, but we all thought the new one seemed pretty ambitious. Bottom line: it is a pretty charming place; we though the food was good/excellent (with lots of unusual combinations); the service was quite slow and strangely indifferent (in a party of 4 the waiter who took the order had to ask who had what when he brought the food to the table); upstair on a slow Sunday night we could talk in normal voices and hear each other!

Thanks for the feedback on one of the more intriguing dining rooms on H St. NE.

Tom, Thanks for the chats. Love them, and appreciate your time. Here's my question: 50th birthday dinner for a friend at her home in Northern Virginia with 15-20 guests. Looking for a full dinner either from a catering company or restaurant that does take out. Price not a factor. What would you do if you were in my shoes? Dessert and alcohol are already taken care of--just need delicious food. Any cuisine is fine. Thanks so much!

I'm not familiar with Virginia caterers, but here in DC, I've used and enjoyed Federal City and Susan Gage. One thing you might consider is asking the chef or sous chef of a NoVa restaurant you like to execute the event. Some of my favorite restaurants in the area include Vermilion, Liberty Tavern and Elephant Jumps.

Charge your phone? Certainly no problem for me as long as you ask nicely. Come to think of it, I do my best to honor almost any (sometimes crazy) request when asked nicely...

Cool. Thanks for the input.

 

So, tell us what crazy requests diners have made!

Do you ever think that you could switch from reviews to consulting? I have visited a few places that I thought could be better. Sometimes, people become blind to their surroundings when they are there too long. Even though I don't know a lot about cooking, health regulations, and other aspects of running a restaurant, I know what I like and do not like. I think I could easily go into a place and make suggestions about the decorations, lighting, cleanliness, menu choices, etc. and if the management listened, they could improve their ratings by 10-15%. Since you have been to hundreds more places, I am sure you have a lot more ideas about how places could better serve their customers.

One of the jobs of a critic is to point out things that work and don't work in restaurants. It's consulting in a public forum, you could say, except that my employer pays for the unsolicited advice. 

Former server here--I probably would not want to monitor a diner's phone, either; depends on the restaurant but there tends not to be a lot of space behind the bar or near the kitchen where a phone and cord could sit undisturbed; plus, sanitation reasons. But an outlet near the diner's table--keeping sure that the cord isn't a trip hazard--wouldn't bother me. The question is, would the manager let it fly?

The buck stops with the manager, I suppose.

I know you frequently receive requests for suggestions in Northern Virginia where I live. I have recently had one lunch and two dinners at Willow Restaurant in Arlington and would certainly recommend it. The lamb shack sausage appetizer, and the (very fresh) scallops with butternut squash ravioli main course were quite delicious. Service was excellent. Just thought I would pass this along to diners looking for something in N. Virginia.

Really? I had a less than stellar meal there recently: heavy food, way too much truffle oil for my taste, bland beef and duck ...  The place felt frozen in another time.

I was lucky enough to eat at The Three Chimneys while on a trip to Scotland and the meal so amazing I found myself taking photos of the food so I could remember every moment. I am Facebook friends with the restaurant and just noticed this post: The Three Chimneys We've noticed lots of you dining in the restaurant take pictures of the plate when it's put in front of you. We'd love to see some of them - if you've got a photo why not send it to graeme@threechimneys.co.uk so we can show it to all our Facebook fans and Twitter followers? So at least one restaurant seems not to mine (and to those naysayers, I did the photography discreetly with no flash and no other diners were harmed during the meal as a result.) And for what it is worth, the pictures remind me of a really wonderful meal.

Taking photos in restaurants is a topic that goes on and on and on -- but continues to generate interest, obviously. Thanks for sharing. 

Hi Tom, Can you recommend a few ideas for an elegant 40th birthday dinner celebration in early summer for a group of 12? We are looking for a place with great but unfussy New American or French food, a comfortable, intimate atmosphere where we can enjoy a long dinner, maybe the option of sitting outside, and possibly associated with an inn or hotel for an overnight stay. Thanks!

The garden at Poste, within the Monaco hotel in Penn Quarter, comes to mind, as does the patio at the creaky-but-romantic Tabard Inn in Dupont Circle. The new Table is getting good early reviews, and while it's not part of a hotel, it is near overnight lodging.

How do you eat so much restaurant food and not gain weight. I've been traveling a lot lately for work, and I gain a pound or two every time I go away. Please advise. Thanks.

 I've put on a few pounds myself in recent years, but to avoid buying a bigger belt, I follow a few rules:

 

1) Work out at least twice a week

2) Drink water and a light snack (raw almonds or an apple) before a review dinner, so I don't go into a meal ravenous

3) Finish only what is truly delicious (keep in mind, I eat a lot of bad food in the course of a year!)

4) Salt my dessert after a few bites, or push it to someone else at the table, to avoid mindless return visits to the plate with my fork or spoon

 

Chatters, I'm curious to know your tricks or strategies for not gaining weight other than dieting. Please share!

Tom, for the diner last week who wanted restaurant recommendations for Amman - I spent a lot of time there and love the Blue Fig, Fakhr el-Din, and definitely Hashem for amazing falafel and hummus. Many American chains like Starbucks if one is so inclined but best pizza if you want a change from Levantine cuisine is Pizza Roma.

Thanks for weighing in.

I have clients staying next month at the Reagan Hilton on Connecticut Ave and I need to find a good place for dinner that's near their hotel. One caveat is that the restaurant must have valet parking (which rules out Ripple and Mintwood Place). Previous choices have included Ris, Rasika, Oval Room, J&G and Ardeo and Bardeo. Suggestions would be most appreciated.

(The "Reagan" Hilton. Must be a PR nightmare for the owners.)

 

The location is so close to my fave in Dupont, Mourayo, almost anyone could walk there, but you need a valet service. How about Urbana or Tabard Inn?

Call Design Cuisine. They cater the inaugural lunch in the Capitol. I used them for an event a few years ago and people still mention how good the food was.

Yes, of course.

charging the phone is fine - just don't ask me to monitor your phone for calls and messages!

HA!

Tom, any updates on when we might expect to see Citronelle reopen?

Honestly? I'm going out on a limb here, a big one, but I have a hunch the restaurant won't re-open. For starters, chef Michel Richard is focused on opening a restaurant in New York City. And when you open in NYC, you have to be fully present.  I don't think it's possible for him to concentrate on two big concepts at once.

I once used a broomstick to remove a bee's nest from the exterior of a customer's little used car, that's probably the best one for me.

I hope you got at least 25 percent (tip)  for that!

Hi Tom, your news about BDT's pastry chef leaving got me wondering: when this happens, have I missed my chance to try the lauded elements of a restaurant (in this case, BDT's desserts), or is the staff well-trained enough that I can still rely on a superlative dish (until someone new comes in and changes the menu that is!)?

It really depends on the talent. Most star chefs hire and train subordinates to do their jobs and execute their food in consistent fashion. I'm betting the desserts at Blue Duck Tavern remain a reason to order the last course there.

Why would you ask a business to charge your phone? What's next - doing your laundry? Geez. What is wrong with people today? Get off my lawn, you kids!

Cell phones have become such an important part of our lives, I'm not the least bit surprised we are talking about the appropriateness of asking servers to charge up our devices. (Not that I think waiters have to do it, but re-charging is a nice amenity, no?)

Considering the value of many phones nowadays (both $ and intangible), if I were a server or restaurant owner/manager, I would not wish to be responsible for keeping such an item safe - either from being knocked down, spilled on or pilfered.

Good point. Even if it were thisclose to my table.

We've asked to be seated near an outlet so that my partner can charge his power wheelchair. Usually, that happens when we're on vacation and away from the hotel for an entire day, so we need to give it a boost.

Gotcha.

I know that its closing but do you care to dish what you WOULD have been saying in your now-moot review?

Actually, my review of Suna, which closed last weekend, is now online. Because the Magazine publishes in advance, we weren't able to pull the column.

In other circles it's known as worse: The Hinckley Hilton.

Baaaaad.

And if I was the owner or manager I would add a $50 service fee.

Uh, not very hospitable though. What are you, an airline executive?

Tom, Went to Table last Saturday night to celebrate our anniversary. Got there a little after 7 (fully knowledgeable that we would have to wait and with plans to go to A&D for a drink). Walked in and asked for a table for 2 and were asked if we had reservations. Explained to the hostesses that we didn't know they started taking reservations. She said in a very condescending tone that they had just started (I was on the website on Thursday and Friday and there was no news that they had done so. Also checked on my phone after we left and there was still no update. The only place I eventually found it was on twitter). We were made to feel incredibly stupid for not knowing the new reservation policy. Put our names on the list and were told that they would call us and a table would most likely be available around 9:30. We never received a call. I fully understand that you are the new, hot restaurant but congrats on ensuring I'll never grace your doorway again. The exact opposite in service happened last night. To make up for Saturday we went to Ambar last night to celebrate. The food was delicious -- I could have eaten just the onions out of the balkan salad, the cheese pie, bread plate, asparagus, mushroom crepes and salmon -- but the service was just a spot on. I called earlier in the day to request a bottle of Prosecco be brought to the table when we sat down, which they were happy to do. Our server (a native Serbian) was spot on with his recommendations and made the evening even more enjoyable. I have no doubt that the food at Table is as good as everyone says but if you can't even get past the front door without a condescending attitude, does it really matter?

Ouch. What happened to the genial hostess at Table who opened the door for me and immediately took my wrap?

 

New restaurants that get favorable critiques need to remember to be nice to everyone despite the crowds. Because they might not be there after posts like this start popping up.

 

Range, I'm talking to you as well. A colleague recently called the restaurant and was informed, none too politely, that because of the WP rave, diners would have to call six weeks in advance of a desired date.

 

Kudos to Ambar, on the other hand.

Tom, Long time lurker here. I was suprised by your superlative review of Range. I was there last week and was really put off by the view of the atrium (let's see, I was staring at the check in desk at a Courtyard Marriott and a CVS!). I think they would do well to consider frosting the glass or otherwise hiding the view. Also, while some of our dishes were excellent (the tuna appetizer and the brussels sprouts were amazing), other dishes underwhelmed (the venison, the lobstor mac and cheese). Also off putting was that despite ordering our own dishes, the servers tried to serve everything family style in the middle of the table, which seemed strange as that had not been mentioned. I will say that other than that, the service was stellar. But 3 stars Tom? Reallly? I beg to differ. sorry.

My review was based on four visits with stomachs in tow to allow me to  eat the range of the menu. In my experience, the pacing -- which I criticized early on -- had improved.  Sorry to hear otherwise.

Tom- Where are the best places for vegetarians and vegans to eat in San Francisco? - any meal or type of cuisine is ok! Thanks!

Greens is the grand-daddy of all meatless restaurants in SF, and it has an amazing view to boot.

Ouch! I did have one positive takeaway, though: I vastly prefer "Food nerd" to foodie.

I really, really wanted to like Suna. But after every meal there, I ended up going out for a second dinner.

Everyone needs a day off and a vacation at some point. If a dessert tastes the same 7 days a week and the pastry chef only works 5, the staff knows what they're doing. Quite a lot of chefs with their name on the menu may create the dish and expedite it, but not actually cook it.

Right you are. The trick is being consistent.

I was a hostess at a "power" restaurant on the Hill for several years, where most of our guests had business and understandably ran through their phone's battery life pretty quickly. I was always happy to charge the phone for them, provided I did not have a crowd of people in front of me and the guest provided their own charger. I would never check on the phone until the guest asked for it back, though.

I bet diners loved you -- and returned to the restaurant in part because of the service you offered.

Chew each bite (and make them small ones) very slowly and leisurely. You will feel full much sooner.

Yep.

I think when you own a business especially in the hospitality industry, you need to consider your guests wishes accordingly and try to accommodate them, as long as it is not a hazard, unethical, or illegal. When you are in the hospitality business, it means you like people, and you enjoy helping them out. In today's world, everyone has a cell phone, and everyone who has a cell phone had a time when they ran out of power (unexpected illness of a family member, forgetting your charger at home that day, traveling during an emergency etc.) I am not sure why we need to be so harsh on each other. As a customer, my only expectation is that you'll try to accommodate, and if you can't you'll politely say no, and I will understand (hazard, no appropriate plugs in public spaces etc.) But if you can, you will make me enjoy my meal better (who wants to sit at a restaurant with a sick child at home when you can't get an update?) I've been in this situation a number of times and have been accommodated with a smile, which made me feel I chose the right place to dine (I generally dine during non-peak hours, and made sure the bartender had time to chat first) When I was a part owner in a restaurant, we kept both Iphone and blackberry chargers at the hostess stand and had a couple requests per week which we could easily and happily accommodate. I still remember the relief on people's faces when we made no big deal of it. If you are in the people business, it's your job to accommodate when you can and servers who complained about "normal" guest requests clearly did not cut for the job in my opinion. Business is hard, and loyalty is not only in good food but in little things you can do for people.

Terrific post. Thanks so much for taking the time to write.

Lumping wheelchairs together with cell-type devices seems to me to be pretty low.

REPLY FROM ORIGINAL POSTER:

 

$50 service fee

No but I wouldnt want it to become a given at my restaurant. Charge your stuff at home or in the car before venturing out. Wheelchair might waive the fee depending on how busy we are etc. Its a restaurant not your room at the Motel 6. Do you want the valet parking to charge your EV? And they should charge too. Grow up pretentious little one!

Sorry dont need a restaurant to do mine. And Tom please get over yourself. Gawd if you need to stay in touch that badly you need to get a life. I am on the Forbes billionaire list and in the top half and I leave my cell in the car when I go out to a restaurant even if its Wendy's or Popeyes. You aint that important!

For the record, I've never made such a request of a restaurant. So I'm not sure what exactly I have to "get over?" I'm just facilitating the conversation ...

Is there something you would like to tell us Tom? Or did you go in drag that night?

Ugh. I meant to say COAT, not wrap.

When you travel for work do not treat any meal as a special occasion or get too cozy with the fact that someone else is footing the bill. Try to eat what you would eat at home (e.g., if you normally have one boiled egg for breakfast, eat that, not the hotel buffet; lunch is always a salad if at all possible; dinner is not a three course meal). And use that hotel gym.

Solid suggestions.

Did Suna know about your bad review before deciding to close, or was that a factor?

I have absolutely no idea. But the final decision was made Tuesday, March 5.

that the rudest and snarkiest posts are also the worst-spelled, worst-typed, etc.?

(I'm smiling.)

And apparently all that money doesn't buy grammar lessons...

Ouch.

before there were cellphones, PDAs, Ipads etc? Bet you enjoyed going out to eat more back in the good old days.

I know *I* did. I sometimes worry we are not living in real time anymore. We are too busy starting at screens, texting, tweeting, Facebooking ...

Cashion's has valet parking and is close to the Reagan Hilton. But if you're that close, WHY WHY WHY are you driving? Walk or cab!

Perhaps one of the diners is unable to do so (isn't mobile)?  My first thought at least.

We do Private Caterings. Bistro Vivant

Thanks for sharing.

Believe me, after 20 years in the bar industry, including a couple of big players in DC/Arlington, EVERYBODY has ideas how to turn successful restaurants into their own playground!

I feel your pain. Everybody is a critic.

Tom This is a partial solution, small servings. My wife and I discovered a wonderful place in Sanibel, FL last month called Sweet Melissa's, that offered half portions. We found them fine for us, and then split an appetizer. We cannot think of any Washington restaurants that do the same, other than small plates places. Can you?

Seasons 52, with two branches in the area, offers bites-size desserts that are delicious and prettily presented. (You eat first with your eyes, right?)

 

 

Thanks for a lively hour, gang. See you again next Wednesday, same time. Chow for now.

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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