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

Apr 30, 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.

Hey Tom! So my question is: Have ramps "jumped the shark"? It seems that every restaurant goes ramp crazy every year around this time, when will enough be enough? I love wild leeks as much as the next foodie but pretty soon they are going to go the way of "Asian fusion" menus, Balsamic reductions, donuts and every other flash in the pan food craze, no?

I wouldn't call ramps, known for their garlicky aroma and super-oniony flavor,  a trend. They're more like shad and rhubarb: harbingers of spring. I was thrilled to see grilled ramps on the menu at Bistro Vivant in McLean last week.

 

NEWS FLASHLETTES: Restaurateur Saied Azali and chef Cedric Maupillier have signed a lease to open a second concept together, at 801 O St. NW --- otherwise known as City Market at O in Shaw. Yet to be named, the 120-seat dining room will be a riff on the business partners' popular Mintwood Place, home to American food with a French accent.

 

Except the spin-off will find smaller portions and lower prices. "I want to cook for the 99 percent and their kids," says Maupillier, who hopes to reach a younger audience with his cooking in the future 5,000-square foot space.   His next restraurant will be on the ground floor of the Cambria Suites hotel and be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Saied and Maupillier want to break ground by August.  Look for an early 2015 debut.

 

WAIT, THERE'S MORE! From Volt/Range/Aggio chef-owner Bryan Voltaggio comes news that he's planning to open his first restaurant, and second Family Meal, this fall in Virginia in Ashburn. Bigger than the original, No. 2  will cover  5,100 square feet in One Loudoun, a mixed-use complex that includes residences.

 

Meanwhile, Voltaggio's forthcoming Baltimore branch of his restaurant-within-a-restaurant in Washington, Aggio, has acquired the services of Dan Izzo, the former executive sous chef of the four-star Del Posto in NYC.   The second Aggio, in Power Plant Live, will open in June.

 

"I'm putting some miles on the car," says Voltaggio, whose home base is in Frederick. Md. "It's going to be a busy, busy summer."

 

I'd wish you all a happy Wednesday, but I'm still glum about the closing of Palena over the weekend.  What a loss, not just for Cleveland Park, but for the city.

 

Not only will I miss the first-class hamburger and roast chicken Frank Ruta served in the café, and the refined food that always trumpeted the season in the formal dining room, I’ll miss his modesty.  Unlike a lot of his peers, Frank always gave the ingredients credit for his stellar cooking.  

 

He was also a great editor. There was never a detail out of place in his food. Everything on the plate was there for a reason.  Without having written a cookbook or signing a TV deal, Ruta became a celebrity chef.

 

His greatest fans are probably his peers, if only because they know how hard his seeming simplicity is to master.

 

Let's get started.

 

My husband to be and I are getting legally married at the DC Courthouse one afternoon in June. We are looking for a place with a nice rooftop view to toast to the happy event and eat an early dinner. We don't need to go all four-stars, fancy-pants but a place that has more seafood and veggie options would suit us nicely. All four of our lovely parents will be along for the ride. We will of course bring sunscreen. Thanks much.

Congrats!  In Adams Morgan, consider the rooftop at either the Asian-inspired Perry's or the youthful Roofers Union. Downtown, the Donovan House hotel serves cocktails and Asian street food on its 14th floor, from its very good street-level restaurant, Zentan.

We want to celebrate my sister's high school graduation on a Wednesday in June (she's from out of town and we're going on vacation the following morning so it has to be Wednesday). We're a party of three and are all fairly adventurous eaters though we'd need to stay away from spicy (hot) foods. She wants to try French food at some point during the vacation but not necessarily in DC. Normally, she requests Japanese (with at least some sushi) or a place with tasting menus/small plates. She loved Makoto on an earlier visit. We have a car so we're not limited to the metro. Thanks!

For Japanese, try the small plates-and-sushi retreat Izakaya Seki near U St.  The co-owner is Hiroshi Seki, who has been cooking for more than 50 years.

 

Near the Verizon Center, I also enjoy Daikaya, a Japanese tavern with a more eclectic script: crab coquettes filled with seafood chowder, cod roe spaghetti and skewered Brussels sprouts with pork belly are among my go-to dishes.

 

As for French, Le Diplomate on 14th St. NW is hot, hot, hot. Reservations are tough, but worth the effort. Also very good (but very small) is Et Voila!, a charming ode to French and Belgian flavors in the Palisades.

Dear Tom and writer, As a restaurateur the amount of tables to place in a restaurant is always on the forefront of my mind. The balance between guest comfort and utilization of space, especially in the current economy and the cost of doing business in DC, is a fine line. I am sorry to hear that the writer felt unhappy and may not be coming back to Mintwood Place. I have not added any tables in the dining room since the opening, changed some around but have not added. At the end of the day one less table of two in the section the writer mentions equates to roughly $80,000 less at the end of the year. A tough decision to make in an industry with low profit margins. My staff and I are always willing to offer another table if there is one available that is more to their liking. Thanks for reading, Saied Azali Owner Mintwood Place

Thanks for taking the time to respond, sir. ($80,000!)

Tom, I love your weekly Q&A session; I try to read it every week. I noticed someone on your last chat was looking for recommendations on eating in Lisbon. I suggest checking out http://americaninportugal.blogspot.com/. It has restaurant, food, and wine reviews written by a CIA grad that lives in Portugal. I think she also contributed to the latest Fodor's Portugal guidebook too.

Excellent. Thanks for chiming in.

 

Another chatter also sent in the following:

 

Lisbon recommendations

  Tom: In the April 16th chat someone asked for recommendations in Lisbon. Here are some of the places my group liked last fall (with addresses and phone numbers): Restaurante Santa Marta Marisqueira, Travessa do Enviado de Inglaterra 1 (a Rua de Santa Marta), 213 525 638; Sancho, Travessa de Gloria 14, 213 469 780; Caseiro, Rua de Belem 35, 213 638 803; A Licorista O Bacalhoeiro, Rua dos Sapaterios 222, 213 431 415; Aqui Ha Peixe, Rua da Trindade 18, 213 432 154 (open Sundays). On our first morning we did a walking tour with Andrea Smith (http://americaninportugaltours.com/). It was a nice way to see the city and experience parts of Lisbon places away from the tourist areas. With lunch it took about 3+ hours. I was hesitant to do it before we went but I’m glad we did it because it gave me a feel for the city I would not have otherwise experienced. Thanks.

I'm headed to a wedding there is July - ever been? I'd love to have a non-wedding meal while I'm out there.

Jackson Hole, anyone?

Hi Tom - My SO and I have been to i Ricchi a number of times and really enjoy the food and atmosphere (and they often have discounted coupons available as a bonus). One of their practices is a bit bothersome, however. We always make a reservation well in advance and arrive on time. Generally, at the time we arrive the restaurant is not full, but we are often ushered to wait at the bar until our "table is ready". This has happened so often that I am beginning to suspect it's an intentional tactic to increase their bar sales. Am I just being paranoid?

That sounds irritating. But you have the right to stay in the foyer ("We'll wait here, thanks") or move to the bar and not order a drink.

 

You didn't ask, but there are far better choices for Italian. Consider Bibiana, Casa Luca or Osteria Morini, among others.

I really enjoyed my salad from Campono - very fresh, good dressing, agree it was hard to toss. And I love seeing the suave maitre d' handing out takeout bags. I do think they need to take a closer look at the pick-up/drink station/kitchen door area, which got really congested with both customers and staff when I was there. But overall a great option.

The subject of my First Bite column today, Campono is definitely a nice option for patrons of the arts (and neighbors) until Bob Kinkead re-opens his more formal Ancora this fall.  I definitely prefer the hot sandwiches to the cold ones and, like some of the Watergate residents, wouldn't mind  servers instead of self-service.  It's a drag if you want another glass of wine or dessert and have to return to the counter to request and pay for them.

Tom you have to help me out. My wife asked me to plan our anniversary dinner which is on Saturday and I completely dropped the ball. I didn't exactly forget but work stress got the better of me. She really wants a tasting menu. Where are your top 4 places with great tasking menu's in the area. DC/MD or VA is fine. We've been to Corduroy and really enjoyed it but would like a different restaurant.

In no particular order, start dialing Rogue 24, Roberto's 8, Restaurant Eve in Old Town, Charleston in Baltimore and Volt in Frederick.

 

Best of luck to you, by the way!

Have you visited Patowmack since Tarver King moved there?

I have not, but I'm eager to see what King is doing there.

Tom: As a lover of the many wonderful, sometimes overwhelming, dinning options in our beautiful city I just cannot understand why people continuously recommend Founding Farmers. The times I have been the food has been good-nothing to write home about- but the service terrible. I am sure there are lovers of the establishment reading this chat right now! Am I missing something?

You don't hear *me* recommending Founding Farmers. Its success is in its location, location, location. The place is near the World Bank, GW University and a number of our large communities of workers and others.

Hey Tom, I don't want to pile on Palena too much, but I would just like to say that no other restaurant in DC had servers who were so blatantly age discriminating as the dining room of the restaurant (didn't experience it in the cafe). My GF and I experienced it as did all of our friends (one couple was even asked if they were sure they wanted the dining room and not the front area). And it's not like we're loud, dressed down or just barely north of our 21st birthdays. Anyway, I hope Mr Ruta takes that into account when he hires at his next venture, because bad service trumps great food every day of the week.

OK, reality check: Ruta is a terrific chef, but he seemed to overlook a lot of service problems over the years. I always thought he should have enlisted "secret shoppers" to give him a true account of what was unfolding in his dining room. (Hey, that's *my* job!) Palena's reputation suffered for myriad problems in the front of the house.

Hello Tom. We'll be in Staunton this weekend to see Othello at the American Shakespeare Center. Do you or the readers have any restaurant recommendations for 2 dinners? No Asian or seafood places, but everything else will be considered. Thank you!

I was down there recently to check out The Shack, from the talented chef, Ian Boden.  As the name suggests, the restaurant is snug. Be sure to reserve. Also, since I visited, alcohol is being served. 

 

Zynodoa, on E. Beverley St., looks promising. I only had drinks at the bar, but the food coming out of the open kitchen looked really good.

Will be going to dinner w/ a friend from NYC who of course is used to great food. Where would you suggest in Bethesda that has good food & is fun.

While I wouldn't necessarily brand it "fun," Bistro Provence in Bethesda has some very good French food. And locals seem to enjoy Assaggi, but New York has an abundance of  -- and better -- Italian.  Food, Wine & Co. may be where you want to go if you stick to Bethesda, but you'd be better off going to Friendship Heights and either Range or its cool new sibling, Aggio.

Since you and the chatters provide such good advice, any recommendations for a nice dinner in Williamsburg?

I haven't been myself, but a food friend likes the tavern at the Williamsburg Winery, which also has a more formal dining venue called Cafe Provencal

Hi Tom - The lead off question on ramps led me to wonder - do you know of any other restaurants aside from Bistro Vivant offering ramps on their menu right now? I'd love to try them, but I'm uninclined to venture outside the District for dinner. Thanks!

Anyone had ramps in the city recently?

I'm not sure about jumping the shark, but they have become more of an IT food than I remember. Two bunches of ramps cost me $10 at a farmer's market last weekend. [Green parts went into pesto for quinoa with king salmon; white parts are pickling for Gibsons]. I'd be happy for that shark to be jumped, if it means prices would come down a little. I won't hold my breath, though.

If ramps have jumped the shark, where does that put pork belly and uni, which some scribes are branding the new bacon? (You sound like a good, and resourceful, cook.)

Good casual (yet somewhat lively) restaurant in Old Town; Majestic? Brabo? thank you!

Vermilion is almost as good as when Tony Chittum was cooking there.  Recent meals at Majestic have been mixed, and I was sort of put off by a rude bar tender there a couple weekends ago. (She seemed miffed when we asked if we could put our drinks on our dinner table. Left a sour taste in our mouths.)

I disagree that "bad service trumps great food" every time. If the food is good enough and interesting enough, I'm willing to put up with not great service. But a lot of people go out to eat in order to be pampered and waited on (not me).

To each his own. Food is *my* primary focus, but not everyone's.

I used to live in Stauton. Honestly, not many good restaurant choices. Zynodoa is probably the best around (haven't been to The Shack), but it's stilla bit underwhelming. I've heard good things about the Mill Street Grill, though I never went. Stay away from Emilio's. Best advice? Go to Harrisonburg for the Joshua Wilton House (which is on the way back to DC), Lexington to the Southern Inn or The Bistro on Main (which is further from DC), or to Charlottesville for any number of good places.

Thanks for the field report.

Heading there with some friends in the coming weeks. Have you been yet? Any suggestions on what to select from the menu? Appreciate the input.

Do. Not. Miss. The. Charcuterie.

 

I am so over the trend of a bunch of cured sausages on a wooden board. Partisan, which serves 30 or so choices  made at Red Apron, demonstrates that not all bresaola and lardo are created equal. Even Partisan's bread -- think of an English muffin with an Italian accent, served warm -- is special.

 

Cured meat is just one reason to check out the latest from the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Just as fine are the fried chicken, the carrot fusilli with kimchi sausage and ... well, stay tuned for my full report in the Magazine May 11.

Society Fair is good for that vibe. You could also try the new Vaso's location and let us know how it is (I haven't been yet).

Gosh, I always forget about Society Fair. Good call on your part.

Hello, Tom! My parents are visiting DC from the West Coast next month, so I'm planning a dinner out with my boyfriend's family. I've met his parents and he's met mine, but this is the first time our respective parents are meeting each other - do you have suggestions for someplace in either DC or Northern Virginia that takes reservations and would be nice for a somewhat special occasion without feeling too stuffy or fancy? As far as other helpful information, I would guess that my boyfriend and I are a little more adventurous in our eating than they are, and it would be great to find somewhere with a noise level that encourages conversation and that wouldn't mind us potentially lingering. Thank you!

In Northern Virginia, Nostos would be a fun gathering spot: very good Greek food in a stylish space in Tysons. I'm also partial to Villa Mozart, the Italian charmer in Fairfax City.

 

Lots of choices in the Big City: the Oval Room near the White House, the recently reviewed Menu MBK in Penn Quarter, Thally in Shaw, maybe Domku -- where else can you find Scandinavian and Polish food together? -- in Petworth.

Snake River Grill has wonderful food. Amangani is a resort with a world class restaurant--just a bit out of town, but worth the extra effort. Or for local color, try the Silver Dollar Bar--burgers and beer, and a bar with 2500 silver dollars set into the top.

I knew one of you could help out.  Thanks.

I disagree with this characterization. Good service does not mean "pampering." Good service is unobtrusive and does not spoil the food experience. Bad service definitely skews the cost-benefit ratio of a dinner out.

Uh huh.

I need some really good fried chicken for about 20 people for a party. Any suggestions?

I guess you're not talking Popeye's or the Colonel's? If it's restaurant fried chicken you want, GBD downtown DC might be able to come to your rescue. The letters stand for Golden Brown Delicious, which sums up the chicken there.

Snake River Grill, Rendezvous Bistro, Bubba's BBQ

More choices for the original poster. Thanks.

Graffiato had them as specials a few times last year (char grilled with Romesco one time, to die for), so he might be doing that again.

Graffiato continues to be soooo delicious. If only the joint were less noisy!

Don't tip or since money is speech just chew the server out and say here is your tip. Thanks for nothing!

Well, there are more civil ways of getting your point across. Like: Talking to a manager -- and before a problem escalates.

 

Keep in mind, some restaurants pool tips. So you might be hurting more than just the lax server by withholding a gratuity. 

There's hardly one of these chats goes by without a chatter complaining either about not enough service or too much service--repeated visits to ask how "everything" is. Here's something an Austin Mexican restaurant I used to go to years ago did: They placed a Mexican flag on each table, with a mechanism that allowed you to raise or lower the flag. A raised flag told the waiter you'd like service. A lowered flag said you were fine. Think something like that might work?

What a smart idea. Definitely worth copying.

"Don't tip or since money is speech just chew the server out"?? This is a person who has no business eating in a restaurant. Talk about free-floating rage.

I didn't read that as a joke and responded accordingly.

My two cents on Founding Farmers comment. Yes service can be spotty but bartenders are usually outstanding and very well informed which makes sitting at the bar a fun experience--actually preferable to a table. Whats more, the drink selection is outstanding and they use "old school" ice" that seems to last forever! Location means nothing to me but a vegetarian menu does and theirs is impressive. Just the fact that they have a separate vegetarian menu is a bonus in itself.

Gotcha. I do remember enjoying the drinks at FF and I do remember ordering a second round to choke back the middling food.  If the kitchen is offering you what you like,  that's great.

The churrascerias I've been to in the Baltimore - DC area do this too, only it's a wooden stick with a red end and a green end. Red end means you're fine, green end means come on by and offer what's on your skewer.

That's very likely where the restaurant picked up the idea, a churrasceria.

Thanks for the vermillion recommendation, but is that too dressy/formal?

The thing I like about Vermilion is it can be whatever you want it to be: a special occasion or a refuge from cooking at home. 

The red flag at the restaurant in Austin? That's for the absolute WORSE mexican food in town. Native Texan here, and that was the practice at a disgusting mexican buffet restaurant. Don't know how they stayed in business.

At least it's doing SOMEthing right, though!

I am really bummed by the Palena closing. I was similarly bummed out when Roberto Donna's Galileo closed. It seems that no matter how good a chef's food may be - there is a huge difference between cooking well and running an enduring business. See - Clydes

(Sigh.)

The Gun Barrel -- the most excellent elk steak. Kinda touristy atmosphere, with lots of stuff on the wall, but great cooking. Cowboy Steakhouse -- located below the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar -- great steaks!

You are a well-traveled bunch. Thanks.

We are going to spend a weekend in DC before dropping our son off at GW University. Can you recommend a foodie, but not too formal and fussy restaurant? For comparison, one of our favorite restaurants in Baltimore is Woodberry Kitchen. There will be five of us.

Sorry to say, DC doesn't really have anything quite like Spike Gjerde's farmhouse restaurant in Charm City.

 

Do you like rustic Italian? Red Hen in Bloomingdale  is good for its seasonal salads, house-made pastas and handsome, oak-stoked kitchen hearth. This Sunday, I'm reviewing G Tasting, a four-course dinner experience within the popular sandwich shop called G, by Top Chef's Mike Isabella. The setting, on Fourteenth St. NW, is casual, the (weekly-changing) food very good.

Hi Tom, I am dreaming about being away some place where the food is heavenly. Quick! If eating well were your goal and money were no object, where would you rather be transported to right this second: Paris, France; Berkeley, California; or Tokyo, Japan?

Tokyo, because I've never been there and I've been meaning to get to Japan for years. And also because I'm feeling fat after handing in the spring dining guide on Monday and I think Japanese food would be restorative.

Because seasons. Remember when there was "asparagus season"? Now you can get it all year round. Not so with ramps, shad roe, etc. Even oysters.

There are so few things you can only get at certain times of the year, and I *love* that.  Eating blueberries in winter is never as much fun as knocking them back in summer, at their peak (and local, of course).

Went to college in Staunton--some other good places to eat are Mill Street Grill, The Bistro, and for breakfast, Kathy's. All are reasonably priced (esp. Kathy's)!

More help for the Staunton-bound among you.

Last chat, the subject of test-driving dining room choices came up. All of these are things I've experienced that deserve a mention: - Foam-cushion seats covered in leather or plastic that squeak out air when you sit on them or move around. - Tiny round tables that barely fit the place settings for two people. - Candles or lanterns so tall that you have to move them in order to see your dining companions. - Low-hanging light fixtures so hot they feel like they're frying the top of your head. - Weirdly sticky table tops, whether from wood varnish or vinyl tablecloths. - Booth seats so vertical and so padded that you feel like you're being pushed forward. - Architectural oddities like wide protruding baseboards that require diners near the wall to sit with one foot on the floor and one up on the baseboard. - Glasses and mugs that are interestingly-shaped and aesthetically cool, but very awkward to actually hold and drink from. Similarly, condiment holders, cream pitchers, chopstick holders, etc. - Pillows - are just a bad idea. People constantly drop them on the floor and put them back on the seats. Gross. - Seats near an air conditioning vent or fan. There has got to be some way to disperse the blasts of air. None of these killed a restaurant experience for me on their own, but it seems notable to me that they've occurred over the span of 30 years and I remember these inconveniences in many cases better than I remember the meals at these places. Maybe that just says something about me :)

Hey, are you reading my restaurant notes?

Hi Tom, Do you know of a good place in downtown DC to take an 8-year for a nice birthday lunch? No food restrictions. Thank you

Central would be fun. I love the burgers (beef, but also shrimp and lobster) there. Jaleo has dozens of terrific small plates and a very cool interior. And what about Hill Country for barbecue?

 

And that concludes today's discussion. See you next Wednesday, after the James Beard Foundation awards in New York on Monday!  Best of luck to all the local nominees.

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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