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

Mar 05, 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.

I was a bit wary of City Paper's story of the dossier of food writers, especially when it said Tom Sietsema's writing style "often ventures into the territory of cruel." Thoughts?

I think I can be tough on places, but ... "cruel?" I'd love to know which reviews the  author of the backgrounder on local food writers was referring to there, because I don't think of myself as someone who relishes skewering subjects.

 

Good morning, everyone. I'm just back from Santa Fe, where I was checking out the dining scene, and Dallas, where I was stranded until yesterday at the Gaylord resort due to weather conditions in both Texas and DC.

 

So glad to be home! 

 

We have lots to catch up on since our last chat. Tell me where you've been eating, and what you've been enjoying (or not). 

 

Surely by now you've heard the news about where John Shields is going to be cooking -- it's not Georgetown, at least not at the moment -- and about the imminent departure of Devin Bozkaya for Westchester County, where the NYT reports he'll be working as chef de cuisine at Campagna within the Bedford Post Inn.  In other chef news, Ian Boden has resurfaced at The Shack, in Staunton, Va., which is the subject of my First Bite column this morning.

 

What have I missed? Share away.

My parents came to town last week to celebrate my 30th birthday. A month prior, they made a reservation online at one of our favorite restaurants in the city, requesting a table in a specific area of the restaurant. Upon arriving at the restaurant, the hostess informed us that a table in the area we requested wouldn’t be available for another 30 minutes. We mentioned that our request was made over a month prior, but she didn’t even offer an apology. Not seeing a way to rectify the situation, we didn’t ask for a manager; we sat in another area of the restaurant, and luckily our waiter more than saved the evening. That being said, is there anything we should/could have done differently? Called the restaurant beforehand to follow up? I know your maxim is to speak up early, but short of kicking folks out of their table, I didn’t really see a way for a manager to rectify a situation like this.

In writing, if there's a point an author wants to make, he tends to repeat it. Same thing applies to diners. If there's a request you have -- for a specific table or server or dish --  make it early and restate it.

 

A *good* restaurant shouldn't make you do that, of course, but details sometimes fall through the cracks.  Had I been you, I would have followed up your parents' online request with a call to the restaurant the day of  the dinner and asked to speak with a manager. 

 

At the very least, the restaurant should have apologized for the oversight. But it sounds like the evening was a success, thanks to your server?

Tom, if you had to pick a wine region that best describes you, which would you pick? I'd see you as a Loire white, probably Sancerre; Serious yet fun, humble but with just a bit of opulence so people come back for more.

I'll take it!

Hi Tom--on his spring break my son and I will visit some of the places we used to enjoy when he was a toddler. The zoo is one such place. Any nearby recommendations for an enjoyable lunch, son is not terribly adventurous in his preferences. Otherwise no restrictions on where we might eat. Thank you.

Woodley Park, home to the National Zoo, is not the most enticing neighborhood in town; worse, its best restaurants tend to be closed for lunch. I'd proposing going to Dupont Circle --  a beautiful stroll or a short Metro ride away -- and eat at  the Greek-themed Mourayo, Pizza Paradiso or even Shake Shack for a burger and fries.

A quick follow up on Le Diplomate - I'm the reader who complained about getting very poor service there on a Saturday late afternoon. The manager reached out here, and we corresponded by email. He apologized and explained that the brunch to dinner transition is always a challenging one for them, as some waiters work one, the other, or both. He said that my post had been reviewed with staff at their meeting. I expressed a reluctance to be compensated, because I think too many people expect too much from restaurants, but he insisted on inviting us back for dinner. I am extremely impressed by the concern he expressed and by his communicating effectively with me (and, I assume, with his staff.) Thanks for being the intermediary!

Crisis averted! Thanks for following up and sharing the happy ending to your story.  And take a bow, Le Diplomate.

We had a chance to try the new Fiola Mare, and came away fairly impressed. Our only minor complaint was that the waiter was not quite as knowledgeable about the wines we were interested it, which is not a big deal, but he did not send over the sommelier, which is what I would have expected instead of him muddling through. Still ended up with a lovely bottle of wine, though. The physical space seems very nicely done with a great view and the food is fabulous. Now if I only had an expense account to pay for it...

 ... or a rich friend, right?

 

The new Italian seafood restaurant from Fabio Trobacchi  has dedicated wine specialists on its staff.  You deserved to have one sent your way to address questions. Did you ask for a sommelier? 

Hi Tom I recently had dinner at a well regarded, and expensive, restaurant and was surprised when they did not offer to check my coat. This was not just my group, as there were coats draped over most chairs in the dining room. In no way did this ruin the dinner, though I feel that a coat check is always a pleasant touch, as is a cleaner looking room. Just wondering what your thoughts on the subject are.

Given the winter we've endured (and continue to endure), I'm surprised a "well-regarded" restaurant doesn't offer a coat check.  The dining room must have looked like an Eddie Bauer showroom!  Aren't all the puffy coats and trailing scarves getting in the way of servers and diners alike?

So I don't live in DC, but will be there for my Mom's birthday this weekend and have been a big fan of Zaytinya and followed Mike Isabella to his new restaurant on 14th st (blanking on the name) What are some other great tapas restaurants out there that I haven't been and should check out?

The best tapas are found at Jaleo in Penn Quarter, but you can also have fun, and graze well, at Estadio in Logan Circle and Boqueria in Dupont Circle.  (Kapnos is the Isabella restaurant you have in mind, by the way.)

Hi Tom, With spring finally coming to DC, what foods are you looking forward to eat? Are there any particular restaurants that have great seasonal menus?

You know what I'd kill for for lunch today? Some shad -- not the roe, but the fish -- and something with rhubarb in it. Also: spring peas!

 

The weather has prevented many restaurants from lightening their menus, at least from what I've seen recently. 

 

 

Tom - I had a fantastic meal at Jeff Black's Republic last weekend. It made me reflect on how much I enjoy the entire Black restaurant group. It also made me realize, however, that I never hear much about Black's in Bethesda. When chatters ask about places in Bethesda, you always seem to mention Food & Wine among others. Black's Bar and Kitchen never seems to get much attention from you. Is there a specific reason why? Thanks for your thoughts.

The only reason I haven't mentioned Black's in Bethesda is because I haven't eaten there within the past year (and a lot can change in 365 days, as you know).  I need to remedy that. Thanks for the prompt.

Hi - Group of late 40s/early 50s women (very hip, if I say so myself) would like to take out a friend who is going through a divorce. Sunday night is the only time we are all available. Any suggestions for a fun (but inexpensive) dinner or a great lounge for a cocktail or two? We all live in the Upper NW DC area but downtown or Bethesda would be fine. Would like to avoid a place where we can't hear each other unless we shout.

Have you been to the new La Piquette near National Cathedral? It's a lovely French bistro, but probably louder than you might want. Buck's Fishing & Camping is another nice place to find yourself on a Sunday night. In Cleveland Park, you should consider Ardeo + Bardeo, maybe a table near the pizza oven. 

Hey Tom, love the chat. I was wondering if you happened to see Jessica Sidman's article in the City Paper yesterday about the "secret handbook" used to "better equip" restaurants to deal with food critics (http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/youngandhungry/2014/03/04/this-secret-document-helps-d-c-restaurants-keep-tabs-on-food-writers/) What are you thoughts? Helpful? Accurate? Pointless?

Honestly? It was shorter and far less juicy than I thought it would be. And I was surprised by some ommissions.

 

Anyone who reads me on a regular basis knows I like bread baskets and Manhattans, for instance. I was happy to read the profiler thought I was a consumer advocate. I appreciate being called an "adroit" writer. I don't think of myself as "cruel" in print, however (or in person, for that matter).  Not sure how any of us were deemed "advanced" or "expert" in terms of our food knowledge. I mean, does the rating come from overheard conversations or what ends up in print?

 

I was relieved the City Paper omitted the photos, since I still believe in trying to be anonymous. Of course, I'm curious to see which mug shot(s) the dossier contains, because I'm pretty careful whenever cameras come out, even in the homes of friends.

Hey Tom, My brother is visiting and I want to take him somewhere to show off DC dining. He's here for 2 nights and one night we are going to Rose's. I just can't narrow down where we should go our second night! Thanks for the input.

Rose's Luxury: great choice.

 

Does your brother like Indian cooking? If so, take him to Rasika West End. There's nothing like it in SF, and the place tends to attract local notables. A two-fer! If you can't reserve a table, just eat at the bar.

 

Otherwise, check out Kapnos on 14th St. or Izakaya Seki  near U St. NW -- two very different kinds of experiences from Rose's.

 

 

Do you know of any restaurants within the Beltway that are featuring shad roe now?

If I hear of any within the hour, I'll be sure to post. Chefs? Got shad?

because the idea of our Tom's being anywhere near "cruel" is so laughable. It's really unfortunate that some City Paper readers will believe this.

The rating was probably based on two or three of my harsher reviews.

Coat check how 1960's! Coat check means an extra two employees for the coat check and insurance hassles since folks are always claiming their coat or jacket got stolen or given to another party etc. Grow up and just hang you got over the chair or man or woman up and leave it in the car. Tom let me be cruel grow or borrow a set please!

Since when is having a coat check pretentious? I see it as a practical thing, a courtesy. Clearly you've never had a coat sleeve knock a glass of wine off your table as a result of people having to stash their outerwear themselves. (Been there!)

The waiter single-handedly saved the evening. We dined at one of the hopping small plates restaurants in the Jose Andres empire where, while the food is always excellent, I've had spotty service. Christopher provided witty, personal service, excellent wine recommendations, and he timed the arrival of our dishes perfectly. We didn't feel rushed at all, and we came away deeply satisfied from an evening that started out in a less than optimal fashion.

A round of applause for Christopher!

I'm sure you saw the guide about how to recognize and cater to restaurant critics. You've also commented in the past about being identified by restaurants that you review. Have you thought about doing away with your attempts to hide your identity all together? I wonder whether hiding your identity just helps the restaurants who are able to recognize you and hurts the restaurants who don't know what you look like. It seems like at some point there's a more level playing field if you just do away with the attempts to hide your identity.

I hear you. But I've endeavored to eat under the radar for so long, I really hate the thought of giving up any attempt to dine anonymously and letting it all hang out, so to speak. 

 

After all this time in Washington, I still don't get recognized everywhere. I think it helps that I go multiple times to restaurants before star-rating them; often, on at least one of those visits, I can go unnoticed.

 

I'd love to hear what readers think about this.

Hi Tom, My company is having a conference in April in DC, with everyone staying at the Washington Hilton. Is there a restaurant within walking distance of the hotel that could accomodate 80 people? Thanks, Tara

Walking distance or a short cab ride? Try Perry's or the new Roofers Unions  in Adams Morgan, Mourayo on Connecticut Ave. or Urbana in Dupont Circle.

Tom, were you nice to the American Airlines ground staff at Santa Fe? There is literally nothing the gate agents can do about delays (and if they're not entirely pleasant, it's probably because they've been yelled at constantly over a delay they can't do anything about). I'm sure part of the problem was that you were flying out of a tiny airport that has extremely limited service and thus very few rebooking options when a delay of whatever sort occurs. (Also, holding a flight for late-arriving connecting passengers is far more complex than you might think, especially with a destination like DCA, and generally speaking is not at all feasible.) So how was the food at Dallas airport?

Ha! You must be a follower of mine on Twitter!  Believe it or not, I'm a pretty patient guy on the road and I'm  also the sort who writes notes of thanks to service workers for jobs well done. But the last few days of delays, not all created by the weather,  tried my patience as never before.  I missed my DFW connection back home by 5 minutes (!) and ended up staying up at the Gaylord resort.  I got into Texas too late to try any restaurants there.

What bugged me about that piece is they described your writing level as merely "advanced" rather than the "expert" rating you should have received!

Thanks, hon.

Tom yours is in the public domain from that arrest back a few years ago in Dc isnt it?

Oh, THAT one.

I also dislike having to hang my coat on the back of a chair, mostly because that means that the bottom of the coat on the floor. If a restaurant can't or doesn't want to have a manned coat check, then I suggest the use of coat hooks or a hanger stand along some wall, so that the coats, hats, and scarfs are out of both diners' and waiters' way and stay off of the floor.

I second that motion.

And if a restaurant deserves a harsh review, you are not doing your readers any favors by not being clear about what they're doing wrong. Keep up the good work.

I shall!

... what are your thoughts on the Washington City Paper's "secret document" handbook on D.C. food writers and bloggers? I'm not trying to be incendiary; I'm honestly curious if you agree with their assessment of you and other local scribes.

See the above.  I was more amused than anything by the document, the details of which seem kind of obvious to anyone who reads local scribes with any frequency.

Tom - My fiance and I try to have a date night on Wednesday nights. Whenever we're able to escape work early enough, we try and stop on our way home to Silver Spring from Dupont to get a bite. The struggle is finding places that don't break the bank but still feel like an occasion... Masala Art is a favorite in Tenleytown, but we're looking for some variety. Republic in Takoma Park? Anywhere in Columbia Heights worth going these days? The only place we avoid is 14th street/ Logan circle since its darn near impossible to park. Favorite weekday hangouts?

Have you been to the new Urban Butcher, right in Silver Spring? That can be fun, especially if you land a seat at the bar or one of the tall communal tables.

Is there a link that goes to your past reviews? I was in DC recently and wanted to find a good place to take friends to dinner in the Penn Quarter area. I was looking for a nice, not too expensive, and not too noisy place. I kept searching but couldn’t find your complete reviews for that specific area.

Producer Maura here. Within the Going Out Guide, you can find Tom's reviews by neighborhood if you navigate through the selections on the left-hand bar. So, for example, if you're starting within a search of all restaurants, you can narrow it down to a neighborhood by selecting from the choices under "Refine by location" (click "More locations" to get a neighborhood-by-neighborhood breakdown). Then, under "Refine by editorial review," click Tom's name. That will get you all of the restaurants Tom has reviewed within that particular neighborhood. Here's a link to the list of restaurants Tom has reviewed near Penn Quarter/Chinatown.

"At least the water is cold"

Hey, I was just quoting a friend there! (The line comes from a review of the late Le Pigalle on 17th St., where just about everything was inedible.)

Fiddleheads ferns! Lots and lots of fiddleheads!

Yes! Another spring delicacy.

This has been on my mind for a while and I thought you could offer some insight. My in-laws wanted family to get together over Thanksgiving and chose a location that was about equal travel distance for all parties. So none of us were in our homes to cook. The waitress at the restaurant mentioned several times how awful working the holiday was for her and how much she missed being with her family. I felt terrible. Easter is approaching and my mother-in-law mentioned that instead of cooking and dealing with the mess she would like us to go out for dinner after church. Practically speaking this is great but is it selfish and wrong to dine out on holidays. We are newer to this as family has become further flung and parents age. If dining out is somehow contributing to the mistreatment of employees then I would not want to participate. Any thoughts.

Not everyone hates working holidays. My mom, a former hospitable nurse, always she said she liked those shifts, because she had more time to spend with patients, cheer them up or whatever, and the pace was a little more leisurely. Obviously, holidays are a busy time for restaurants -- but busy dining rooms tend to translate into good money for staff.  

 

In short: Sounds as if your T-Day server was a Debbie Downer!

For one of your visits, have someone order the food with your party, and then swap out with you as the food arrives (any buy them drinks and dinner at the bar!). At least you'll know if the cooking is consistent.

You mean, ask someone at another table to do this? And order the same dishes?

Based on your review, a friend and I went to the Iron Gate for lunch last week. Our experience was very disappointing. First the hostess chided us for not having a reservation, even though the web site says they don't take reservations for lunch. My $12 "martini" was served in a tiny coupe, not a martini glass, and I could find no evidence of gin. My soup was barely tepid. The cannelloni appeared to have spent time under a heat lamp and the top was more than crisp. Since I couldn't find an email contact, I mailed the chef a letter detailing my experience. What's a reasonable time to expect a response. For the $45 I spent I could have dined much better in any of several restaurants in the neighborhood.

Boy, that sure doesn't sound like the restaurant I just reviewed. Sorry to hear.  In fairness, I'd give a business a week to respond to a written letter (48 hours or so for an email).

Have you been? If so, what did you think?

It sure didn't taste as if George Vetsch was in the kitchen (and he isn't, he confirmed to me earlier this week).

Thanks, Tom. I have a similar issue. I'm a vegetarian, and I always say so when making a reservation: either by telephone or OpenTable (in the comments section). When I get to the restaurant, however, the maitre d' and/or server always act like they've just read the reservation for the first time, and scramble to make accomodations. I suppose a phone call earlier in the day of the reservation will be helpful in this situation as well.

I'm wondering if restaurants aren't reading the Open Table special requests, or reading them and then forgetting about them. There really ought to be a system in place for everyone on staff to read comments from diners, in order to act on them.

No wonder you went into the hospitality biz. It's obviously in your genes.

Oops. Typing too fast.

So your mom was very friendly?

She was. She IS.

 

Hospital. H-o--s-p-i-t-a-l.

Your mentor Phyllis Richman (sp?) could be brutal and blunt. You gloss over faults much more poetically and sometimes annoyingly so. Just my humble opinion....

Someone once told me that if half the crowd hates you and half of 'em love you, you're probably doing your job. Just saying.

Headed to the city by the Bay today. solo.(sadly) Any choices for great restaurants in San Francisco that would welcome one at the bar? Thanks.

Lots! SF is great for solo acts. Try Bar Agricole, Cavalier, Slanted Door and Coqueta, for starters.

"Just saying" has been replaced by "I know, right?"

I'm still jet-lagged. Give me an hour and some coffee. Meanwhile, thanks for the update!

Tom, Anyone who thinks are might be even a little cruel should read one of your chats. The ribbing you take - VERY good naturedly - should clear that up for just about anyone. Thanks for your hard work - AND your sense of humor.

Aw, the ribbing comes with the territory. I didn't go into this line of work to be loved, that's for sure! But thanks for the kind words.

Was probably angling for a working-on-a-holiday tip ...

My thought, too. But that kind of behavior can back-fire on a server.

Tom: Hope I am not too late. Just wanted to give a shout out to a few restaurants that I have been to in the last few months that are still hitting it out of the park. Been to Central twice, both times everything was outstanding and the kit kat was better than I remembered. Zaytina, always delish and the season mushroom couscous. SO good! Rasika West End continues to be one of the best dinning experiences and Kapnos were I took my in laws who have visited DC at least twice a year over the last 15 or so years and proclaimed it was their favorite meal to date. Keep up the great work!

Hey, are you following me around? Having eaten at all those places lately, I concur (expect for brunch at Kapnos, which was under-whelming, mostly because of the sullen bar tenders).

It's a restaurant chat, right?

Can't win.

 

Sorry, but those are the bulk of the questions and comments I'm getting today. What can I help you with, food-wise?

Sounds like the chatter hasn't been to a decent cocktail bar since the '80s.

Reality check: those coupes are pretty standard these days ...

Celebrating my birthday alone in Paris next weekend. Could be worse, right? Any restaurant recommendations for dining solo?

Lucky you!  Check out my end-of-the-year Postcard, which highlights a Paris bistro.

...if you figured out a consistent way to neutralize the restauranters' attempts to give you special treatment. For example, you make a 7:00 p.m. reservation at Restaurant X for two people; and 2-3 friends make a separate reservation at Restaurant X for the same date and time. Figure out a way to order many of the same dishes. Then compare notes after your meals.

Jeff Bezos is a wealthy man, but I'm not sure even *he* would agree to my doing that, and at every restaurant I review!

No, it is not selfish and wrong to dine out on holidays. It WAS selfish and wrong and MEAN of that waitress to whine to customers. Every workplace has people who would rather not be there, no matter when they are there. You got one of those.

Agreed.

Comfy lounge, great drinks, tasty snacks?

Hmmm. It would be a toss up between the Four Seasons and the Jefferson, I think.

Tom - I enjoy your writing and think that you do your very best as a consumer advocate and to avoid biases wherever possible. One question. You stated that you were recognized on your one visit to Villard Michel Richard in New York City. The place being a major disappointment , in spite of being recognized, added something to the review. Let's say you had liked the place. Would it not be difficult to write a favorable review based upon one visit when you were recognized?

I certainly would have taken being recognized into consideration, and let readers know that, in a rave. Alas, that was not the case at Villard Michel Richard.

Tom -- do you have any thoughts about Le Chat Noir? I like it and have taken people there for brunch, lunch and dinner on occasion. I'd be interested in your opinion. Thanks.

Et Voila! and Le Piquette are superior, in my humble opinion.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for spending the hour with me. See you again, I hope, next week.

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: