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

Mar 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.

Tom, I have never been to Georgetown before. This Saturday a girlfriend and I have an appointment there. Can you recommend somewhere for lunch? Something cheap and low key would be best. We will need something to satisfy a meat eater and a vegetarian. Thanks for you and the chatters help!

Try Ching Ching Cha, at 1063 Wisconsin Ave. It's a serene tea house with small plates for both of you: lamb-stuffed dumplings, squash with garlic and pepper sauce, five-spice peanuts, curry chicken and more, which you can wash back with a choice of more than 70 teas. A multi-course meal can be had for $14.

 

In Glover Park, I really like the new Malgudi, from the owner of Heritage India upstairs.  The menu celebrates the cooking of South India, rich with spices and coconut. Mysore bondu are similar to hush puppies, but zestier. Thayir sadam, or curd rice, is a cool bowl of yogurt and rice scattered with mustard seeds and curry leaves. Very refreshing. On the meatier side, there's wicked shredded lamb cloaked in a peppery gravy.

 

Did you hear? Food editor Joe Yonan came out as a vegetarian in today's Food section. He and I also went on a tour of a number of meat-leaning DC restaurants to see how omnivores  fare. Let's just say, both of us are more than eager to go back to Mintwood Place for another vegetarian napoleon.

 

Is everyone ready for (more) snow? I woke up to a wet blanket of snow here in Upper NW this morning. But that cover is turning into more of a quilt with each keystroke. But I'm here, armed with a pot of coffee, and I hope you're going to spend the next hour or so with me. 

 

Fritz Hahn in Weekend started a list of places that are offering snow day deals.  Earlier this morning, I heard there will be happy hour prices all day at all Café Deluxe branches (Tenley, Tysons, Bethesda, Rio Gaithersburg) and both Tortilla Coast restaurants (Cap Hill, 15th & P). 

 

Chatters, feel free to add to the list if you know of other options.

 

For now, bring on your rants and raves.

I know this has been addressed often, and I am grateful that you list noise levels in your reviews. I don't understand why restaurants need to have background music playing. One of the best parts of dining out, is having a conversation with your dining partners. I don't go to a restaurant for their "piped in music". I've been to restaurants where the noise level was so high that I actually lost my appetite.

If the music is played at a level that doesn't interfere with  table conversation, I see no harm. And when it matches the setting, so much the better. I was at the veteran Old Angler's Inn recently and really enjoyed listening to Ella and Frank and others crooning hits from yesteryear.

When I waited tables we had calamari with 3 wonderful sauces. None of which were typical cocktail or tartar. A woman INSISTED on cocktail sauce on a busy Friday night, there was none pre-made and I was really busy and quite annoyed, so I made it for her. 1/4 ketsup & 3/4 HOT horseradish.

Did you make her cry?

Who takes pizza seriously around the district and where I can recieve a great experience ?!?

Uh, lots of places take their pies seriously. For Neapolitan pizza, I head to Menomale on 12th St. NE, Pizza CS in Rockville and Pupatella in Arlington.  Two Amys near National Cathedral has lots of fans, but I find the crust to be inconsistent. Urbana in Dupont Circle recently acquired pizza maker extraordinaire Tony Pilla. 

 

Chatters, where do you head for memorable pizza?

In response to "a good place for breakfast" in Old Town, you recommended Teaism. If a person is coming to Old Town, why direct them to a breakfast that they could have had in DC, when within a couple of blocks of Teaism are unique Old Town restaurants with some of the best breakfasts in town. Specifically, the Royal Restaurant (over 100 years old), one block away, serves eggs any way you like them with the best slab of Virginia ham you ever tasted. Extra Perks (800 block N. Fairfax) serves, among other things, a delicious full British Breakfast.

My most recent breakfast in Old Town happened to be at the youngest branch of Teaism, so it popped into my head when I read the question.  I'm happy to promote your two recommendations, however. Thanks for writing. I've always been curious about Royal.

I recall seeing a write up for a chef that now serves a price fixed meal out of his home in Arlington. I would love to try his meal out, but can't remember the details. Any help would be appreciated! Thanks!

You're probably thinking of Chez Le Commis. I've not been yet, but I'm eager to try the six-course $50 dinner, served in the chef's unfurnished living room.  Reservations can be made at chezlecommis.com

Ambience is an equal half of the dining experience. Yet, restaurants only highlight their dishes on their web sites. Maybe a snippet of a room. My wife and I like to dine in a booth! Is there any way, short of calling each restaurant, to learn if they offer booths.? How can we see what the whole dining rooms look like before we get there!!??

 Web sites with photos that include the scenery score points with this diner, too. I sometimes refer to them in the course of reviewing a restaurant, to refresh my memory. Atmosphere, by the way, accounts for a quarter of my star ratings. 

 

If you want a booth, you should bring that up when you call or email for a reservation.

Hi Tom. I am looking for good Italian food that won't cost a fortune for my boyfriend and I. In DC proper since I live in the city is best. Thanks! Adriana

Check out the snug Al Tiramisu in Dupont Circle for fresh seafood or Siroc downtown for fresh pastas. Fiola off Pennsylvania Ave.  is more upscale, but the restaurant offers certain deals when you go for lunch or dine at the bar.

I am craving to eat a good Tarte Tatin, preferably apple or pear. Where can I go to find such a gem? We will go anywhere in DMV area. Thank you for information, my stomach will thank you.

I had a lovely version recently at Bistro Provence, chef Yannick Cam's serious French dining room in Bethesda. I hadn't been there in a long time; the dinner, including a Parmesan flan in a frothy moat of asparugus cream and a terrific duck confit, reminded me what a talent Cam is.

Dear Tom - Going to Charlottesville with kids (5&9) and their grandparents and staying at the Omni. Planning on getting BBQ near Montpelier on way down (where?), but can you recommend a place for an earlyish dinner? My kids are well-behaved, and not picky, but, say, while we love Ripple I wouldn't take them with us. Would love some place where we can get locally-sourced (read not-Sysco based) food we'll all enjoy. Also, if I asked you the name of a breakfast place with killer biscuits and an artsy mis-matched decor, would you know what I was talking about? Thanks!

For barbecue, try the Barbecue Exchange in Gordonsville, 30 minutes or so northeast of Charlottesville.  Everything from the cornbread to the salads and desserts is made from scratch.

 

For dinner, try Zinc for seasonal cooking in a former gas station or the Whiskey Jar, right near your hotel, for southern comforts like fried chicken.

 

As for breakfast, I enjoyed the one served up at the funky Bluegrass Grill & Bakery, right near my favorite place to eat in town, Glass Haus Kitchen.

Hi Tom! Love the chat. I have kind of a weird question -- my mom is 100% convinced that the quality and cleanliness of a restaurant's bathroom is directly related to the quality and cleanliness of the kitchen (and consequently, the quality of the food). She doesn't really have any evidence beyond 'gut feel' for this, but she always checks out the bathroom before we sit down and decides if she wants to stay based on that. So I figured I'd pass it along to the expert - in your experience, is there any truth to her idea?

While I understand where your mom is coming from -- and I appreciate sparkling restrooms as much as the next diner -- I've also had some amazing food from establishments where the loo could use a good scrub. But there's something to be said for restaurants that look at the whole picture -- the comfort of the dining area, the up-keep of the restroom. We tend to associate care in the areas we can see with care in places that are not visible to us, like the kitchen.

Have a friend visiting DC who would like to eat at a restaurant (or two) helmed by a Top Chef contestant. What is the best option - Graffiato? The Range? Making the trip to visit Volt? There are probably other options I am not thinking of. Probably looking for something slightly more upscale than Spike's burger joint.

Graffiato is so darn loud. If you go, go for an early drink and starter. My  "Top Chef" choice would be Range in Friendship Heights, which I'm reviewing this Sunday in the Magazine.

I LOVE Ching Ching Cha...my husband and I have been going for years. Note that their tea meals come with a tofu soup made with chicken broth. If you are a vegetarian, just tell them and they will give you an extra vegetable with your entree (probably the tofu).

Thanks for the heads -- and thumbs --- up.

Tom What gives on the new Elisir project? Do you think the quality will drop? Not sure if to be excited or sad about it

A part of me is sad to lose an interesting upscale Italian dining concept, but I think the changes the chef-owner is making this month will make regulars out of more of us. While he's simplifying Elisir, Enzo Fargione is not  going to dumb-down his food.

Hi Tom! I know you get complaints about always touting Rasika, but I truly believe it is worth it! I had some good friends in from out of town last week, and we always dine out together nightly when they are in town. We went to Rasika for the first time (for them) and I have never seen them enjoy a meal so! The tawa, the sigri, and breads were a major hit. The recommended wines were just perfect. Plus, every single one of us thoroughly enjoyed our entrees - not to mention the fabulous mango chutney. I'm hungry just thinking about it! And, of course, the desserts put a perfect cap on the evening. Thank you again for convincing me it was the place to take them. The priceless look of their feces that night is a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life!

Your feedback  is sure to put a smile on the face of the staff at Rasika for the rest of the week.  I continue to take skeptics of Indian cooking to the restaurant, and its sibling in the West End, and have made believers out of all of them.

For the poster last week looking for shad, Mintwood Place has just added a new seasonal shad roe and fillet dish to their menu.

Good to know about Mintwood Place. Any other kitchens serving the seasonal delicacy?

Hi Tom- longtime lurker, first time asker. Can you or maybe someone in the industry explain why restaurants clear plates before all diners are finished eating? I find it uncomfortable (and somewhat rude) to sit there with an empty space while my companions are still eating, and I feel rushed when I'm the one still eating and others have cleared spaces.

The topic that will not go away! I just addressed the issue in a recent Ask Tom column. In short, plates should be cleared only when everyone at the table is finished eating. Some diners say they hate the sight of dirty plates in front of them, but as a courtesy to slower eaters, they should show some tolerance. No one likes to feel rushed, as you point out.

I'm heading to Jordan for a few weeks; do you or anyone else have suggestions for restaurants in Amman? Thanks!

Never been. Chatters?

Following up on questions a few weeks ago, and your article with Joe, I wanted to mention that the restaurants on the 11th St corridor (Maple, Meridian Pint, Room 11, Red Rocks, Kangaroo Boxing Club, etc.) all offer good vegetarian entrees.

Ah, good to know. Thanks for taking the time to share.

Tom, what's your favorite stuck indoors on a snow day food?

At work, I'm typically in a suit and within reach of a fruit bowl and a big jar of roasted almonds.

 

I tend to eat more when I'm stuck at home. I attribute that to the likelihood I'm also in a loose bathrobe or baggy sweats on bad weather days.  (Too much info? Sorry!)  Comfortable clothing means a snacker doesn't feel as guilting grazing the snow day away on Fritos with peanut butter (you read that right) or a roll of Girl Scout cookies (picked my order up last week). 

 

But I'm trying to keep a healthful house these days. Greek yogurt and kimchi are among the snacks I like to have on hand. And beans, especially black ones. Right now, I'm eating a hot tomato salsa with baked popcorn chips.

 

Fellow home-stayers, what do you see in your food future today?

I know it's a typo, but it really made me do a double take! I'm referring to the last line. . .

FACES. It should read f-a-c-e-s.

Do you think it be asking too much to go to a high-end restaurant (think: Restaurant Eve) and ask them to accomodate a dairy and egg allergy? I recently developed these allergies and, now that I'm learning to adjust, want to venture back out there.

It never hurts to ask, right? Restaurant Eve is a very accommodating place to dine. My hunch is it will be able to feed you very well.

Hi Tom. I loved the article on eating veg in a meat-heavy restaurant. These days, vegetarianism isn't so on the fringes and with health care providers advocating a diet emphasizing veggies, I don't know why more restaurant aren't more creative with their veg options on the regular menu. Kudos to all of those guys - are there plans to put those items on the regular menu? The dishes sound incredible and I'd love to support their efforts. Thanks for representing us veggie lovers!

It was enlightening for Joe and I to check out all these restaurants, plus a few others that didn't make the article, including Kushi, which featured some nice grilled vegetables and a decent vegetarian sushi. Both Joe and I hope the piece prompts more chefs to consider the diner who doesn't eat meat. The bar is high, now, thanks to places such as Range and Mintwood Place, both of which fed us extremely well at a moment's notice. (Always better to call ahead and let the business know you want something special, of course.)

...but I really wish these restaurants would just add these awesome-sounding dishes to their menus. It would make everything so much easier for all of us.

Here's hoping they do just that. Adding a new dish to a menu isn't as simple as it sounds, as Maupillier shared with us in today's article. For one thing, cooks need more space to do certain things, or more advance preparation is required. 

We are taking a trip to Brussels in April but there doesn't seem to be a lot of online sources for what/where to eat for that city. Do you or readers have any tips?

It's been nine years since I last dined there, but the following all impressed me enough to write about them for a Postcard from Tom: Comme Chez Soi for haute cuisine, T'Kelderke for solid pub food on the town square and Bonsoir Clara for steak frites and shrimp croquettes (which you find EVERYwhere in Brussels).

Hi, Tom! I used to read your chat regularly when I worked and had some downtime. Now I'm a SAHM and and I have no idea what restaurants have appeared over the past two years. My husband & I have a sitter Sunday night. Can you recommend a place (no jeans, please) for dinner? Prefer it not be Asian since we have good Asian takeout near my house and that's really the only outside food I ever eat. Thanks!

Got some catching up to do, eh? Of the newer restaurants around, the supper clubby 701 (well, new chef) has really impressed me in recent months. So have Table in Shaw (pity it doesn't take reservations), Ambar on the Hill, Chez Billy for French and Blue Duck Tavern (again, thanks to a new chef) in the West End.

Case in point: the importance of proofreading.

Gotcha. I apologized. This is a live chat.

Tom: As a 20+ year resident of Logan Circle, let me start off by saying I never realized you were a neighbor, but I hope that at some point I passed you on the sidewalk, smiled, nodded and exchanged a pleasantry without realizing it was you. Also, good luck in your new neighborhood, which sounds marvelous. Now, on to my major point -- the Popeye's on 14th Street NW is, hands down, the worst Popeye's I have ever patronized. Their grease is old and overheated, and it gives the chicken a distinct "burnt" taste. I've been to at least a dozen Popeye's on the eastern seaboard, including at least 4 or 5 in the metro DC area and, trust me, when they use a fresh, clear oil to fry the chicken, the taste is truly heavenly. I've always trusted your opinions, Tom, but learning that the 14th Street location is the source of your overwhelming Popeye's love is causing me to question that trust. :-)

Ah, I went to that particular location mostly out of desperation and because it was nearest me at the time.  Which was usually late. I've been to other branches and have enjoyed much better service and complete orders (my last batch, they FORGOT the slaw.)

Hey Tom! My husband and I are celebrating our 10th anniversary this weekend. We are going out to dinner at CityZen on Saturday (very excited, as it will be our first time there), but we are also taking Friday off from work to spend the day together while the kiddos are at school/day care. We're looking for a place to go out for lunch on Friday with great food and a fun/relaxed atmosphere. We were planning to go to Graffiato, but have been thinking that we'd like to stay in northern VA (Fairfax, Tysons, Arlington, Alexandria). Any recs, besides sushi (which we're having for dinner) and Great American Restaurants (which we like but go to all the time)? Thanks so much!

Congrats. What' s your secret?

 

In Fairfax, I'd head to Villa Mozart for Italian; in Tysons, I'd do Greek at Nostos or Mexican at La Sandia; in Alexandria, I'd go to the Bistro at Restaurant Eve. That help?

I once had a busboy try to take my plate away while I was eating. No joke - the silverware was in my hands and, if I remember correctly, I was actually in mid-chew.

Wow. What did you say?

Most restaurants can easily and gracefully make meatless dishes ala minute. However for vegans, if it's not an Asian restaurant, there's unlikely to be tofu or seitan on hand, and a lot of mis en place will include dairy and/or eggs.

Are you in the industry? Just curious if you're representing cooks or know this to be true.

Homemade beef vegetable soup for lunch, salad and homemade tomato-and-white-bean soup for dinner, and I baked strawberry oatmeal bars this morning.

Hey, can I come over?

I went to Ancora Saturday evening for a pre-Kennedy Center dinner. Food was very good (scallops perfectly cooked, good panna cotta), service was good (a few kinks to work out - timing of the bread delivery, for example), and it was crowded. I went at 5:30 to make the opera at 7. Definitely make reservations. It will be nice after they remodel it, which I understand is the plan - it looks pretty dated right now. Still, a welcome addition to pre-theater possibilities.

A welcome pre-show destination, for sure, but there's also some interesting theater in the dining room. I'm thinking now of the painfully thin women with the perfectly smooth faces and their husbands  competing to pay the bill with their black AMEX cards at just one table near mine the other evening.

Very excited to go to Komi - husband surprising me for my birthday. Is there a bar to have a pre-dinner cocktail in the restaurant or do we need to show up at the appointed hour? Not a fan of the joints nearby to stop in for a drink except maybe Hank's. Thank you!

Not too far away are the intimate Quill at the Jefferson and the cozy lounge at the Tabard Inn.

Tom, We will be open today. Depending, if the conditions get worse, we may close early. I hope everyone stays safe. Love the chats! Thanks, Ferhat

Thank you, Fishnet!

I'm not just getting old! Noise in restaurants has become completely counterproductive. Are restaurants getting the message that anything above, say, 80 db is too dang loud for conversation? There are places I absolutely won't go because the owners won't install a little soundproofing - or at least some sound mitigating material on the ceiling. Your sound ratings are an essential part of my decision-making process. Seriously - not an old fogey about this. I just like to hear my friends.

Me too. But many restaurants either don't care, or don't want to invest the money to make a place sound less like a factory floor. It's a shame.

So how many of the chefs knew who they were making these off-menu dishes for? Sounds like most of them did. Unfortunately, the rest of us aren't likely to get similar treatment.

No one knew we were coming or that we'd be ordering a meatless meal. We wanted to see how the kitchens reacted without advance notice.

Professional server here - diners feel just as strongly BOTH ways, and its often up to a server to decide if a plate should pulled or not. Help your server by pushing a plate you'd like removed off to the side or put a paper napkin on it. Everyone gets in trouble when your server has to be clairvoyant....I generally try not to pull plates until the mean definitively done, for the record.

As another waiter wrote me, if a diner asks him to take away a plate before everyone else is finished eating, how can the waiter not? I feel the need to tell diners, though, that the request is semi-rude.

I'm in the food for good cheap tacos to warm me up today. Nothing fancy or modern, just tasty tex-mex. Know of anything in the Maryland burbs? I used to love Taqueria Poblano in Del Ray, but today isn't the day to make the drive.

Is Elkridge too out of your way? Because I dig R & R Taqueria there.

Today is my birthday, and today's food section, including your excellent article with Joe Yonan, was a great gift to this 3-decade-plus vegetarian. Thank you!

Awesome. Happy birthday and pass the potato napoleon.

In an amazing coincidence, I was just going through my pictures of a trip to Belgium and when I read the request for restaurant suggestions for Brussels. My husband and i really enjoyed a place called In T'Spinnekopke - I think it translates into something like "in the spiderweb". Traditional food - lots of mussel dishes - interesting old surroundings and a great beer selection.

Perfect timing. Sounds promising.

Do you think that maybe they keep sound levels up to keep the crowds moving? It seems that an atmosphere not conducive to conversation will get people eating and out. Quiet tunes and coffee after a meal may create too many lingerers.

Or "campers" as the industry calls table-hoggers.

 

I think you are right! Fast music spurs us to eat more quickly.

Yes, but once you got there, the chefs/wait staff figured out who you were and probably decided they needed to get their game on. How many of us regular folks would have received the same gracious treatment as you did, rather than what we usually get -- an eye-roll or a lame vegetarian "meal" consisting solely of, um, vegetables. Please discuss.

Try this. Before you go to any of the restaurants we wrote about, call and say you're coming in and want to order the same thing (or at least eat meatless). I promise to post the reaction you get, the reception you receive  -- and I hope they're positive.

The Michelin guide online (viamichelin.com) is the best source for restaurant recommendations, and Brussels is bursting with excellent restaurants. Brasserie Jaleo and L'Achepot - I'HPO were two of our favorites. Sadly, Comme Chez Soi was closed the week we were there.

Michelin best source for Brussels, or in general? I'd be less inclined to use the guide, say, for here in the U.S.

The newest location of Taqueria Distrito Federal is open in Silver Spring. I like it lots.

But of course!

I will confess to eavesdropping on a very fascinating conversation about booking guests on a news show.

See what I mean? Lots of movers and shakers and refuse-to-ageniks over there! Well, the Watergate *is* right upstairs.

Honestly, if you call a restaurant a few days in advance and specify what you do and do not eat, most restaurants/chefs are happy to accomodate. Some are more cooperative than others, but it's that whole "we're-just-showing-up-and-now-we-want-a-full-veg-menu" attitude that restaurants don't like. I've done this in a variety of cities, different types of restaurants, and at different price points, and generally, they're happy to work with you.

Speaking from experience. Thanks.

Hi Tom. You are a good writer and you seem to value good grammar. But you also want to get questions and answers posted quickly. That's why, for a nominal fee, I would be happy to team up with you and correct grammatical errors so you don't have to ("I am looking for good Italian food that won't cost a fortune for my boyfriend and I"). Love and kisses, A fan

And your rate is ....? ;)

Busted. I am in the industry. And I read all the comments about the ubiquitous grilled veg/pasta vegan options:). Just trying to explain why this might be.

Thanks for identifying yourself.

I enjoy reading Joe Yonan's articles and today was no exception. however he seems to be sliding into that holier-than-thou abyss that some vegetarians espouse....."it's better for your health....it's better for the environment". Really? How does he propose I ensure my three growing boys (and myself, 10 weeks pregnant) get enough iron and protein? tofu and legumes ain't gonna cut it. Red meat has a place in homo sapien's diet, and I refuse to feel guilty about it!

You might want to ask Joe himself. His Free Range chat follows mine at noon.

When I eat (NOT dine) with my husband or with any or all of our grown children, I put my plate to the side when I'm done and I WANT and expect it to be cleared. All of us feel that way. Maybe if we were DINING, it would be different.

Obviously, there are many ways to look at this issue!

That was a cute Freudian slip, no?

Ha!

Yes, sorry, the Michelin guide online was the best source for Brussels, and I am sure, other places in Europe. Not the US.

Gotcha.

Tampico's in Laurel MD does a good Tex Mex. Located on Route 1 south. Best tacos and different varieties of tacos.

And just as we're drawing to a close. Gracias.

This may be too late but thank you for your part of the all-vegetarian issue today. It is great to see vegetarians understood as people who do love food and enjoy eating, not just as austere buzzkills. I wish more restaurants understood that I don't want to cause trouble or be difficult -- I just want to give them my money in exchange for tasty meals!

You are welcome. Thanks for writing. And fingers crossed as a lot of us dine forward with meatless meals on our minds.

Thank you for the article bringing attention to the demand for more varied vegetarian options! I was wondering as I was reading it whether chefs would really be willing to make special entrees for anyone, and whether I would have the nerve to ask. You answered that question at the end of the article (at least about whether chefs really want to receive such requests on a regular basis). But I hope restaurants will take your article to heart.

The fact Joe and I are hearing from so many of you is information we want to pass on to restaurants: There's a big, and growing, audience for meatless menus.

 

That's a wrap, gang. See you here next Wednesday. Stay warm and dry and well-fed out there today.

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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