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

Apr 16, 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 think you have addressed this before -- what's nice phrasing for telling waitstaff to give you some privacy? At Kapnos last night the staff was at our table seemingly every 5 seconds (probably every 2 minutes in reality). Combined with a quiet restaurant (not very full) it made conversation difficult. I recognize it's a small plates menu so they will need to come by the table a bit more than other places but I felt this was over the top and impacted our enjoyment of the evening. The busboys were constantly trying to take away plates we were still working on. I don't have that famous Sietsema tact and would've said something rude like, "Can you stop coming over here??". The food was only OK this time and maybe it's always been this way but I really noticed how small the portions were. Had been wowed by Kapnos in the past but no longer feeling the need to rush back. Have you noticed a decline?

First, thanks for the field report. I've been back to Kapnos just once since my starred review: brunch at the bar, where I found the servers totally disinterested in doing their jobs with any sense of graciousness. The food was fine.

 

Like you, I'm not a fan of plate-snatchers or intrusive servers.  If it looks like you're in That Kind of Restaurant, you can try to head off problems by saying to your waiter,  "We're low-maintainanance diners and we would like to catch up tonight. If we need anything, how about we let you know?" 

 

Does anyone else have a better trick? Share away.

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for another 60 minutes or so of dining talk.  I'll be taking next Wednesday, April 23, off in order to make my deadline for the spring dining guide, which comes out May 18 in the Sunday Magazine. So join me here again on April 30.

 

We're off!

A while back I requested some restaurant suggestions for a once in a lifetime meal in Paris. I wanted to thank you for your response. I decided to dine at both Le Cinq and Spring. I enjoyed every minute at both venues. They were exactly what I was looking for. Le Cinq provided exceptional service. The waiter, who was always around at exactly the right times, even laughed a bit when he realized my dinner companion and I switched entree plates half way through. (I like to try everything.) And Spring had some of the best food I have tried in Europe. I would easily recommend both. I also recommend taking a macaron baking class. That was probably my favorite experience of the trip. Thanks.

Le Cinq and Spring! Heaven.

 

European servers tend to freak out when they see food-obsessed Americans swapping plates. A few years back,  at a high-end restaurant in Paris, the  servers swooped in each time four of us rotated our meals, as if they couldn't bear to see us do their jobs.

Tom, I had dinner last night in a rather posh restaurant with a group. We ordered an oyster platter to share as an appetizer. When the plates were laid at each place setting, one in our party said to the server: "None for me, please." The server laid a plate in front of that diner and snapped: "It's protocol, sir." Tom, first, is it protocol to lay a plate in front of a guest who has made clear that he is not partaking in the shared course? And, second, is it ever appropriate for a server to enforce what he or she believes to be a rule of etiquette against the clear wishes of the guest? (Keep in mind that this was the same server who, when asked to describe the fish "cobia," found it necessary to correct my pronunciation by placing the accent on the second syllable, contrary to my Merriam-Webster dictionary's unambiguous vindication of my placing the accent on the first.)

Where is this restaurant? I want to avoid it.

 

One reason we follow protocol is to make people feel comfortable.  When the diner declined the oyster course, the waiter should have said, "Very well" and moved along. For the waiter to insist on setting a plate in front of the guest is bad form, bordering on rude. Plus, it's a waste of a plate and utensils.

 

Here's the dictionary's pronouncer for the fish, by the way: ˈkō-bē-ə

I was eating out the other day at a place that had the radio playing in the background. I am not sure if it was a local station or something like SiriusXM. But, there was a problem... I don't know if it was the speakers or the signal that was bad, but the audio would play for 5-10 seconds followed by 5-10 seconds of silence. It was like listening to Name That Tune because you only heard brief pieces of whatever was playing followed by silence. And when the audio stopped, it seemed way too quiet in the place only to have it start up again a few seconds later. I can't believe the staff didn't notice. I think the best solution would have been to turn it off if they couldn't get it to play right.

How annoying. I take it you didn't (forgive me) pipe up?

I'm headed to Seattle next week. I would appreciate any recommendations from you or other chatters on great places to eat. Thanks in advance!

Lucky you. This is a terrific time to be visiting the Emerald City, my one-time home.

 

Some of my choice haunts include Matt's in the Market (as in Pike Place) for lunch with a view; Shiro's for first-rate sushi in Belltown; The Walrus and the Carpenter for small plates (artichoke salad, grilled sardines, sweetbread terrine, rhubarb galette); Altura for stellar seasonal Italian; the roof deck at Terra Plata for brunch (don't miss the manchego biscuits with chorizo gravy); and Revel in the neighborhood of Freemont for terrific Asian small plates, including gingery short ribs and a mung bean pancake made with kimchi and pork belly.

 

Yes, you will eat well out West.

Your note in the Toro Toro first bite about the chairs brought to mind a couple times when I've gone to a restaurant, gotten great food, great service, and just been thrown off by poor furnishing choices. The two that come to mind for me are: 1) Evening Star Cafe, in Alexandria. The armrests on the chairs are way, way too high, which precludes their use! Not only that, they're too high to scoot your chair under the table, so sitting in one means you're always just a little too far from your (completely delicious, lovingly prepared, well served) meal. 2) A table for two at Firefly in Dupont Circle. Took my now-girlfriend on our second date there, and while the truffle fries were to die for and the bread basket memorable 14 months later, our table was awkwardly long for two. I don't know how close I want to be to my dining companion off the top of my head, but I know my table there was about a foot and a half longer than that! Any come to your mind? Would love to hear readers' take.

The poster is referring to today's preview of the new Toro Toro, a column in which I suggest restaurants take their details --  not just food, but lighting, furniture and other features -- on a test-run before opening.

 

Chatters, what parts of which restaurants annoy you?

Love your chats and hope you can help! My company is having a week long training in our Reston office for about 20-25 sales people, coming in from around the region and Boise, Idaho. I'm a Maryland/DC native and don't know much about the scene on that side of the river. I've been tasked to pick out two or three restaurants that can accommodate the group, preferably in a somewhat private room that would encourage mingling among the teams (as opposes to sitting at a big table only talking to the people next to you). Price isn't a big issue, but good (not too exotic) food in a great atmosphere is. Any guidance is greatly appreciated!

In Reston, try for PassionFish and Jackson's if you want to dine in locally-owned restaurants, Il Fornaio if you don't mind a California-based chain. Is the group able to get out of Reston easily for at least one meal?

Tom, lately I have seen some restaurants do the tip calculation at the bottom of the check, starting with 20% (!) but always making the calculation on the total check, not the pre-tax amount. I always tip on the pre-tax total. Has the custom changed? Am I really undertipping even when I thinkI am being generous?

Ah, the question that never goes away ...

 

I can argue both sides of the situation. My usual strategy is to tip on the total, maybe just a bit lower, and leave 20 percent gratuity. 

 

It would be nice to see more of a range on those tipping "suggestions" on the bill, right?  Maybe starting at 15 percent , or better yet, 18 percent.

Hi Tom, I know this topic has come up before, but I had an interesting experience I wanted to share that reinforces the fact that younger diners (or not as well-dressed/posh-looking) sometimes don't receive as good of service as those more established-looking. My boyfriend and I save our money so that we can splurge at nice places for dinners, but we often feel that we are overlooked by the staff because we look so young and aren't typically as well-dressed (though we try! Ha.). I thought this was all in our heads...until this weekend. I absolutely LOVE the new-ish NOPA Kitchen and Bar in Penn Quarter. Their Chilean Sea Bass dish won me over the first time I went, so I decided to go back on Saturday because I had been craving it again. After I ordered it, the waiter told me that they were out. I was very disappointed, but understood that these things happen and I chose a different dish. Then later during the end of our meal, an older group, dressed in suits and pearls sat down near us. The same waiter informed them that they were out of the sea bass and the woman was disappointed as I had been. She ordered something else, and then a few minutes later, the waiter came back...and quietly leaned in and said "we have one more of the sea bass left, if you'd like it, it's yours." I couldn't believe it. I laughed it off later that night, but I wonder if I looked a little "richer" perhaps I would have gotten my favorite dish :( I want to reiterate the fact that NOPA is a great spot - they just broke my heart a little this weekend.

I forwarded your missive to the restaurant, which invesigated and responded with this note:

 

Dear Tom:

Thank you for sending us the thread from your chat.  I would like to say that I am both personally and professionally sorry for the mistake.  This error is embarrassing. 

 

In rereading the chatter’s comments, I understand the conclusion drawn.  However, we make no practice in excluding certain guests from our product.  We frequently must put a count on our popular dishes on busy nights, and the Seabass is our most popular plate.  The server, most likely, did not realize the Seabass wasn’t 86-ed, and that there was 1 portion more until he was told by the kitchen after the “older couple” ordered.  I am sure it was not a matter of choosing whom to eat the bass.

 

And, not to belabor the issue, I want to apologize on behalf of myself, Greg, the management team, and the server.  This occurrence is not typical of the NoPa experience.

 

To that end, I would like to invite the writer and guest to return as NoPa’s guests.  I will personally look out for them to insure an enjoyable experience.  Feel free to give my contact information below, or I can call him if he likes.

 

My sincere regards,

 

Mark Borghetti

Lisbon? More interested in local authenticity than gourmet

Never been myself. Chatters?

Tom ... my wife and half a dozen other 40ish women need to have lunch together in Georgetown on a Saturday afternoon. They're from the Eastern Shore and adventurous eaters, so most any restaurant will work, provided it's relatively quiet, $10-15 for lunch mains and not a chain that they can visit in Salisbury or Easton. We've been away from DC for a decade, and have no idea where to begin. Any suggestions?

It might be pricier than what you're looking for, but the Grill Room in the youthful Capella hotel is beautiful, both inside and out (on the balcony overlooking the canal). The restaurant offers a three-course lunch for $29, by the way.

 

A bit removed from Wisconsin & M streets, Bistrot Lepic is a French charmer. For something more casual, try Pizzeria Paradiso.

 

None are chains, nor do they taste like them.

Tom, have you been to the Liberty Tree on H St NE? We, the neighbors, think it is our version of Cheers..Your impression?

Here's what I thought when it first opened. I haven't been back since. (So many restaurants! So little time!)

Table too high, chair too low--it's like I'm a kid trying to eat at the grown up table.

Been there (just last week, in fact)!

For the Seattle goer, I recommend a great place for breakfast -- it's called Morsel, and it's up by the University. It's a total university town hole in the wall that serves biscuits, huge delicious homemade biscuits, a few varieties (cheddar and scallion among them) in sandwiches with eggs and other things. My family (two teen boys) loved it so much we ate there twice in the 4 days we were there.

Sounds promising -- and addictive.

Tom, I saw an article in the Post online yesterday about where to eat ramps, fiddleheads, etc. and I saw Flight on there for dandelion greens. I've been there a few times and am addicted to their fermented fries, a game changer imo. Have you been yet? I think it's a nice place and more importantly nice to have wine bar in that part of town that isn't so stuffy, like that one place on the other side of the arena.

I've flown Flight twice now. My preview runs in print April 23. I agree, it's a really welcoming place to drink. The servers are generous with gratis tastes of things you might want to try.

Based on your recommendation to another reader in last week's transcript, I drug my husband and his parents to Nostos in Tysons Corner (Hubby and father in law are hesitant to try new places). Wow, it was so good. We will be returning. Thanks for adding a new restaurant to our rotation.

Always glad to hear a recommendation was 1) taken and 2) enjoyed. Go, Nostos!

Hi Tom! I look forward to your chats every Wednesday! Next month for her 77th birthday, I am treating my mom to dinner at the Little Inn of Washington. What should we expect from the experience? Should I call in advance and let them know we will be celebrating her birthday? I realize it is her gift but I am just as excited as she is for this dinner!

The reservationist typically asks if you're celebrating anything special. If you're concerned the occasion might be overlooked, by all means call ahead of your visit and relay the information.

 

I love that the menus are personalized with the name of the celebrant (or party) at the top. And I'll never forget taking my mom to the Inn for the first time and her reaction to seeing her name flagged in bold-face type.

 

"Oh, Tom!" she cried. "Can I keep it?" (as if anyone else would want a menu with a stranger's name on it ...)

Given all the recent upheavals and departures, do you think Tabard Inn is still a good choice for lunch? I've always been a huge fan of their gumbo and would love to have it again.

I'd ... reconsider.

No. In the District, and some parts of VA, the tax adds 10% or more to the bill. If you're working from the post-tax total and 20%, that makes the tips starting point 22% -- or almost one-quarter of the billed price of the meal. Tip inflation is already out of hand, and if we're talking an expectation of an addition 25% surcharge for tip, well, that's just silly...

Fair point. I just shared with the poster what I typically do.

Two girlfriends and I will be going to see the Annual DC Design House at 4600 Linnean Ave, Northwest on a weekday morning later this month. Can you recommend a few restaurants nearby that would make for a nice luncheon spot?

Alas, there's not a lot that's great *and* open for lunch on a weekday near the Design House, which my colleague Jura Koncius previewed in last week's Local Living

 

A delicious exception is the coffee shop at Palena on Connecticut Ave., which has a limited selection of soups and sandwiches (including some amazing wood-fired bagels).

I'm with you on the annoyance of tables that are too small, especially at small plates establishments! Usually these tiny tables are also jammed in so close that it's impossible to get in and out. Specifically, I don't think I can go back to Mintwood Place after being seated at one of the tables with the banquette against the wall. The space was so narrow between tables that I couldn't get out to use the restroom, and felt like it was easier to hear my neighbors conversation than anything my dining companion across the table was saying. Sacrifice a table or two and everyone will be much happier!

Uh huh.

My husband and I will be welcoming our 1st baby this summer and we know life will never be the same after the big event. Where should we go as our last meal? We have been to Inn at Little Washington, Citronelle, Bourbon Steak and Restaurant Eve to name a few.

Nice list you have there!

 

Have you been to Aggio, the sleek restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Range? I gave the place three stars, an "excellent" rating. Another destination to consider is the very good Fiola Mare overlooking the Potomac, from chef Fabio Trabbocchi.

I am looking for a restaurant which will serve a luncheon fixed menu in a room for about 40 people after a burial at Arlington cemetery. I wouldl like a reasonable price about $13.99

That's tough:  A private room and $14 a head. Places to start (negotiating) are Kabob Palace, Carlyle, Lebanese Taverna and Busboys & Poets.

Don't understand why question askers don't name the restaurants they write or ask about. Is there some inherent fear of backlash or identity discovery? It seems like you always appreciate to know the restaurant to make a full evaluation. Or maybe there's something I'm not seeing...

Sometimes, posters don't name names out of fairness to the restaurant, which may or may not be able to respond to complaints in real (online) time. I can appreciate that.

 

  In other cases, I think restaurants go unnamed because chatters fear retaliation from the establishment, or because they were somebody's guest at a place and don't want any unpleasantness to reflect on the host.

It seems interrupting a server's or host's routine throws them off - my husband, though not obviously blind, is legally blind and cannot read print. He's politely refused menus, only to have them forced on him, laid in front of him anyway, asked "are you sure?" - he (only once) snapped back, "I'm blind" at a particularly aggressive attempt.

I'm sympathetic to the staff in this case, considering you say your husband is "not obviously blind."  But if a guest declines a menu, he shouldn't have one forced on him.

Hi Tom, Love your column and the chats. I read your review of Le Vieux Logis and was happy to see that it has already begun to reflect the talents of the new chef. I was there a few weeks after the change in ownership and was very pleasantly surprised at how good everything was- I had skate and it was wonderful. With all the new restaurants opening up and with all of the chef changes that go on, how do you decide which restaurants to review?

In the case of Le Vieux Logis, I wrote about it because I had initially given the place a less than glowing review and I wanted readers to know the situation there had changed. Also, since I've gone on record as not digging the scene in Bethesda much, I was pleased to be able to write something positive about a restaurant there.

 

In the past six months or so, I've been focused on the many, many, many new places that have rolled out in town. I definitely don't lack for material.

Tom, Having dined in the top restaurants in the world, finding a restaurant as good as Rogue 24 in Washington DC is a gift from heaven. The 24 course dinner amazes and thrills. The true artistry of the food and service impress; almost like visiting a great contemporary art museum...except for food. It is not about the show, such as Alinea, or about reputation like the Inn at Little Washington or the French Laundry, it is all about the artistry of a food genius, much more along the lines of Noma. If there is one restaurant to experience in DC it is Rouge 24. The critics in this city do not give this restaurant enough praise for thinking outside the box. Unlike the raves you give to Red Hen and/or Rose's Luxury, they take reservations and their food is much, much more interesting then brisket and pastas. I suppose DC isn't ready for this type of cuisine unless it is from the Demi-God Jose Andreas or the press cult hero Johnny Monis.

R.J. Cooper, is that you rattling my cage?

 

 Geez, I gave Rogue 24 three stars in my 2012 fall dining guide. Subsequently, I've sung the praises of the chef's modified menu for those patrons who don't want dozens of courses. Not sure how that gives credence to my not giving the restaurant sufficient ink.

Artie's is my favorite restaurant, but there is one problem. They have no tables for large parties. I went there with my family for my birthday and had to be seated at two adjacent tables. Sunday I saw the same thing, as there were maybe 10 people at two tables. The problem is none of the tables are moveable. This won't preclude me from going again on a special occasion (I live in Olney, so it's a real trip, and my daughter & her husband came from Frederick!), but I wish there were something they could do.

Here's a call for both bigger tables and for tables that can accommodate large groups.

My birthday is around the corner and there's nothing I love more than forcing my friends to join me for a good meal. About 10 of us and we're all mid-20s, big eaters and drinkers. It's a weeknight and we all work in the district so venturing to VA or MD is a challenge. Love to sit outside if possible, and we're down with any cuisine. Thoughts so far have been Zaytinya, Daikaya, The Partisan, Mintwood...can you get our creative juices flowing with some good, maybe off the beaten path suggestions?

You have some great options there.

 

Have you been to Perry's since it went all-Asian?  The rooftop is one of the restaurant's non-edible charms. 701 has a very good new chef, whose food you can enjoy on patio chairs overlooking the Navy Memorial fountain.  Other good restaurants that claim al fresco seating include Table, Jaleo, Blue Duck Tavern and Cashion's Eat Place.

Tip on the subtotal, because tax is not a service.

I hear you, I hear you.

Where would you recommend for the best dim sum in the DC/NOVA area?

Saturday brunch at the Source.

 

I know a white dude serving Asian dumplings is probably not what you want to hear, but Scott Drewno and his noodle dishes rock.

I have that problem at many places and asked the other day for a phone book..Otherwise the table is where my neck meets my shoulders.

A phone book?! Who has 'em anymore?

The year I turned 30 (1976), and when I was living in a Nordic country, I spent my summer going from place to place around Europe. In Paris, on Bastille Day, after the rain stopped and after I saw the Mona Lisa, I wandered into the best restaurant experience I ever had. Thankfully, I was not wearing blue jeans that day. The restaurant was Le Doyen, and I remember *everything* about it. The chairs were tapestry, and they pulled the table out for me instead of the chair. The wine steward was so cute and he was very sweet to me. The meal was poached salmon with new potatoes and sliced carrots (with a bit of the top attached), with a wine lemon butter sauce. Melted in my mouth. A lovely small greens salad was served. I know I must have had a starter, but that part I don't remember (sigh). Dessert was in the form of butter cookies, along with my coffee. I was there for Three Hours! Wow! And the price in 1976 - at a restaurant like that - was pretty reasonable, if I recall correctly. When I returned, some 25 years later, the tapestry chairs were gone and there was a different chef. No surprise there. I tried to explain in my fractured French to the maitre'd that I had been there before and how wonderful it was. He gave me a gift of an ashtray with the restaurant name and logo on it (I don't smoke, but I kept the ashtray - I thought it was gracious of him). But this time, there was no cute wine steward, the food wasn't as good as before (you never forget your first French Restaurant Experience, after all), and the price was incredibly expensive. But what memories. They will always be with me.

What a lovely story.

And what a gracious waiter.

 

Do you ever wonder if you were served that exact same meal now if the food would taste as memorable as in 1976?  I ask myself that question all the time, whenever I return to places that I've eaten in decades earlier. Were my happy memories based on truly great food or have my tastes matured or otherwise changed?

Can I weigh in on the tip question? I always tip 20%, and always on the total bill. Why? Because waiting tables is hard work, the servers often have to share their tips with busboys and kitchen staff, and well, gee, I just want to be nice. The truth is that the difference between a 20% tip on a $50 check and a 15% tip is $2.50. And that amount of money is going to mean much more to the person receiving it than it does to me. If you can't afford to tip WELL, you can’t afford to eat out. On extremely rare occasions I reduce the size of the tip because of the service I’ve received, but the server has to be not only bad but mean for me to do that.

Bless you. My thoughts exactly.

Tom - if 20% has become the new 15-18%, how high would you go for exemplary service?

I've tipped 25 percent for extraordinary service before.

I drink at the max one glass of wine when we dine out. My husband doesn't drink alcohol at all. I'm reading more and more that restaurants count on alcohol sales, particularly wine, to cover the cost of their meals and service. I'm getting the sense that if we don't drink enough they'd rather not see us. Should we limit our dining to places that have a higher margin?

It's true that restaurants make a lot of money on booze. But just because you don't drink alcohol shouldn't keep you from enjoying good restaurants. Besides, more places are offering interesting non-alcoholic drinks.

Hi Tom. I totally agree with your Dim Sum recommendation on The Source. I have tried just about every place in DC/Nova and just because a Chinaman is serving you doesn't make it better. Grazie!

And just because a lot of Asians are seated in an Asian restaurant doesn't make it delicious!

This is true, but it is also true that the term "Chinaman" is pretty generally considered offensive. "A Chinese person" is better.

Of course. I should have flagged that. Thanks.

I've always been a pretty adventurous eater, but I wonder if the same meal would taste the same now. I suspect that it wouldn't, because the actual experience - all of it - was all of a piece. But let's face it, superb French food, in France and especially in Paris, is great in and of itself. I had a plain omelet there earlier in the day in 1976 that made me swoon. Good thing it's almost lunchtime, eh?

Oui!

Tom, for lunch near the Design House at 4600 Linnean, how about Terasol at 5010 Connecticut Ave?

Thanks for the additional idea.

I can't stand mirrored walls in a restaurant. No need to watch myself eat a sandwich!

Really? If it weren't for the band of mirrors at Obelisk, some of us would have nothing to look at but a beige wall or our dining companion. 

 

Mirrors can be useful. Among other things, they let restaurants pretend to be roomier than they are.

Carpet - gross, for many reasons.

Carpet muffles noise, but I tend to agree with you.

And just because a lot of gay guys are seated in a gay restaurant doesn't necessarily make it fabulous.

That's for sure! (Hello, Lauriol Plaza.)

 

And on that note, I wish you all a delicious rest of the week. See you back here April 30.

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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