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

May 01, 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.

I couldn't agree more with your First Bite column! And best of all, they take reservations, perhaps having convenience for the diner in mind! Le Diplomate is an outstanding addition to the neighborhood, and I think other restaurateurs operating along 14th Street could take a lesson or two from Stephen Starr. (and they better)

I have to admit, I was not expecting to like the restaurant as much as I did after my first dinner; imports don't always do well in DC. But if Stephen Starr has more like Le Diplomate in his pocket, I say, bring 'em on, sir! Just for starters, the breads, all baked in-house, are some of the best I've had in any area restaurant, ever.  

 

News flashlette: One of the French bistro's recent hires is Emily Sprissler, the Season 2 "Top Chef" contestant who recently closed Mayfair & Pine in Glover Park after a run of less than a year. Sprissler tells me she's signed on as a sous chef at Le Diplomate. Her husband and former co-chef, Jason Cote, has a new gig as well.  As of a few weeks ago, he's the sous chef at Virtue Feed & Grain in Alexandria, with which Restaurant Eve's Cathal Armstrong recently parted ways.

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for some food and restaurant talk today.

Love your chats Tom! Have you been to Elisir since it reopened? Just wondering how the food and vibe is for a good date night?

Yes, I've been (four times in the past few months). In fact, my updated review of Enzo Fargione's downtown restaurant, which now goes by the name Osteria Elisir, appeared in the Magazine last Sunday. The revamped restaurant is still primo for a date night, by the way.

Thanks for taking our questions, Tom. I have a client who said she loves steak tartare (as do I). I have enjoyed it at Bistro Bis at Hotel George and at Brasserie Beck. Where is your favorite restaurant downtown DC for steak tartare to take my client? Thanks!

I love the version at Mintwood Place, where chef Cedric Maupllier dresses up minced beef (eye of round) with diced fried potatoes. A more novel rethinking of the classic can be found at Rogue 24: minced raw lamb and tzatziki foam nestled in a ruffle of lettuce.

Tom can I raise a pet peeve. Happened again the other night. Made a reservation, showed up on time (everyone there on time). Told would be a 15 minute wait, would we mind waiting in the bar. OK so far only slightly annoying. 20 minutes later am told table is ready. So start to gather up drinks, hostess looking at watch trying to figure out how soon she can turn the table, and then the bar tenders says I need to close the tab. I fish out the credit card, wait for the tab, sign it with appropriate tip. I look at my friends, one of the says ”Chuggers!" We down our drink and head out the door. I guess I have a no splitting the check policy when it comes to dinning out. What ever happened to customer service? It would be one thing I we had shown up early and decided to have a drink before dinner, my choice. Maybe it had to do with the fact that the last time I went there we were 10 minutes late and they acted like they were doing me a favor by holding my reservation. Sorry but I am too old and spend too much dinning out to put up with bad service.

Let me get this straight. You were all on time, you were directed to the bar, where you ended up for 35 minutes.  Then, when your table was ready, you knocked back your drinks and left.

 

A thought and a question:

 

1) After 15 or 20 minutes waiting for a reserved table, diners ought to have at least a round of drinks comped.

 

2) Why did you bolt, right when your table was made available?

Hi Tom! A girlfriend and I turn 30 within weeks of each other, and a group of 10 of us are all going out to celebrate. We -never- go out so I'm having a hard time picking a place that will fit my requirements. Somewhat fancy, maybe a little adventurous in terms of food tastes, but not Asian cuisine or sushi. In the city, preferably.

Consider the freshly-minted, Italian-leaning Red Hen, from the former wine maven and sous chef at Proof.  My preview comes out next week, so I'll just say the design is open and airy, the cocktails are fun, the buzz is great and ... get the rigatoni with sausage.

Hi Tom, submitting early b/c I always miss the chat during real time. Through his work, my husband, won $350 towards dinner for four. Ideally, we'd like the full $350 to cover food, drinks (for 3 since one is pregnant) and tip but are willing to pay any extra over the amount. We live in DC and Northern VA but are willing to travel. We've been to Komi and weren't impressed, but glad to have gone for the experience. We've gone to Volt and Restaurant Eve, which are amazing. We've also been to a few of the restaurants in your fall dining guide: Bourbon Steak, Rasika, Ripert's West End, Central. We'd love to try somewhere we wouldn't normally go to and pay out of pocket on our own. Unfortunately, Inn at Little Washington would be too out of pocket. Where would you recommend we go? Thank you for your help!

What a generous employer your husband has!

 

With that kind of budget, and given where you've already been, I'd probably book a patio table at Bistro Provence in Bethesda, which I'm including in my forthcoming spring dining guide; CityZen in the Mandarin-Oriental hotel; or Fiola in Penn Quarter.  Three very different options, all distinguished in their own way.

Hi Tom--I've got family coming into town this weekend for an event in Bethesda. Looking for a Friday evening dinner spot for four people, most of whom will need pescatarian options. Budget-wise, it would be great if the entree price point could be at or under $25/person, but I can be somewhat flexible on that point. Thank you!

Food Wine & Company sounds like it might be the right fit for your group.  The restaurant has something for everyone on its spring menu, which was introduced just last night.  Looking for fish and seafood? From the raw bar come ceviche, shrimp cocktail and salmon tartare; from chef Michael Harr's kitchen you can get steamed mussels (three different ways), grilled arctic char and diver scallops with squid ink pasta. Entrees hover around $22, by the way.

Hi Tom, We are going to Oahu for a long vacation and wanted to know the must eat places on the island.

Oahu, anyone?

I'm looking for a recommendation for a restaurant for a retirement party of about 30 people. Ideally, a location near the McLean vicinity, but anywhere in Northern Virginia is fine. A private room would be preferable, but not essential. Thanks

In McLean, I'd check in with Bistro Vivant; elsewhere in Northern Virginia, try Villa Mozart in Fairfax City, Liberty Tavern in Arlington, L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, and Harth or Nostos in Tysons.

During your last discussion, someone asked about restaurants in Japan. Maybe take a look at Bento.com online and on FB -- might be helpful for all kinds of food. We have used it when traveling in Japan, but haven't gone to any Michelin rated places -- just because. Both Tokyo and Kyoto are listed with restaurants of different ethnicities as well as locations in town. Good luck to the traveler -- we return in November and I can't wait!!!

Thanks for sharing a resource new to me.

Tom: I'm taking my family to the Kennedy Center soon and I heard that there's a new restaurant that took over not long ago, right next door below the Watergate. What's the name and what can you tell me about it? Is it worth booking pre-show?

The restaurant you're thinking of is chef Bob Kinkead's pop-up, Ancora, at 600 New Hampshire Ave. NW.  The dining room wouldn't win any design awards, but the Italian-inspired menu includes some attractions, including fritto misto and seafood pastas. It's the best closest place to eat near the KenCen right now.

We will be staying at Park Hyatt this summer and seeing a show at the Kennedy Center. where to eat in between those two locations?

My favorite pre-theater strategy nearby is Marcel's.

Hello, I was sad to see that Againn closed. Is there a decent place in DC for a good English meal? Some classmates are coming to town for reunion; we all studied in England for a year. I've tried the Elephant and Castle - meh. Thank you.

Your best bet is Brixton, one of several solid restaurants from the local Hilton brothers, on 9th & U streets. The best of the Anglo dishes when I was there last year were the Scotch egg and the pork bangers. LOVE the roof-top deck!

Is it still good? It's been a while since I've been and am planning a group dinner in Falls Church near the bowling alley, where we'll head afterward, and that's my top choice so far. But I don't want to take my friends if it's only meh.

I haven't been to the restaurant since I last looked at it last spring after chef Will Artley took over the kitchen. Has anyone been there recently?

Went to Cheesetique this past Sunday for lunch and they totally blew our order. One cheese tray, one flatbread and one frittata. After 45 minutes we flag down a different waiter - ours had disappeared. We end up with the tray and flatbread, they are now out of the frittata. Initial waitress obviously inept, but we tipped ok for the guy who delivered the food and took care of us. What would Tom do? And no, nothing was comped.

I would have personally given the waiter who came to your rescue a 15 percent tip and left nothing on the table for the AWOL waitress.

Tom, I'm headed to Charlottesville this weekend. Any recommendations?

Tom, I agree that the food is good, but the service speed is terrible! Are you sure you didn't just get good service because they know you? I've been there several times and had slow service on each occasion. Once I was even brought to a table (after an hour + wait) and then made to wait in the aisle while they sat the table. It was a little awkward.

If there's one complaint I've had about the newcomer, from friends and readers, it's about the off service and the wait times for tables. One pal texted on April 27: "Went to Le Diplomate at 5:45 to put our name on the list. 9:15 and still no table. We are bailing."

Hi Tom, We had a great dinner the other day at Diplomate. My biggest surprise was the service, bartenders were attentive and friendly (not only to us but everyone as the place got more and more crowded) and the servers were similar. I like that they are not very uptight with the image, and their training clearly shows. Our server's recommendations were top notch, totally met the expectations. I still wouldn't take my mother-in-law there because there seems to be some mishaps here and there especially when it gets really busy, which I don't think they expected either, but for friends who want to have a good time, I think it is absolutely great. I am already looking forward to going back.

What's the best steakhouse for a date night atmosphere? Husband got a promotion and we want to celebrate with great steaks!

Congrats to your husband! Are you looking for a modern steak house experience? If so, I'd book at Bourbon Steak in Georgetown or J & G in the W Hotel near the White House.

And spoken personally to the manager before you left -- or even before you had to flag down a different waiter.

Yes!

Hi Tom, A friend of mine is getting married in July. She and her partner are combining two fairly established households, so they don't need kitchen stuff or towels, so we'd like to get them a gift certificate (about $100) for dinner out. They're not fussy eaters, and appreciate good food. They live in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. Do you or the chatters have any recommendations?

Good timing. I recently visited Atlanta and wrote up three mini-reviews for a Postcard from Tom column. The single best meal I had there was at Cakes & Ale, in Decatur.

If you're on the North Shore, go to the original Matsumoto's Shave Ice (you have to) and find Giovanni's Shrimp Truck. Also, on Sundays, there's some guy doing huli-huli chicken outside the supermarket in Haleiwa. So good.

Reader to the rescue!

I had dinner at a Michelin 3 starred restaurant in NYC recently. Looked up to see a gaggle of (male) waitstaff obviously ogling an attractive woman walking away from them out of the restroom. I was so surprised (and somewhat embarrased) to see this, given where I was. One of them noticed me watching them and broke up the party. Was this just normal behavior for NYC?

No, it's normal human behavior, period.

A little concerned re: your latest opinion on Restaurant Eve. Special birthday dinner planned there. Really looking forward to a relaxed tasting menu. Should we plan to go elsewhere? Thanks (in advance) for your thoughts!

No, keep your reservation at Eve (the tasting room, right?) It's an excellent restaurant that just felt a little uptight the last dinner I was in. Most of the food was as good as I've enjoyed in the past, too.

Hi, Tom. I'm a little disappointed that you caved to reader's curiousity and delved into Roberto Donna's financial past. This should be between him and his creditors- he doesn't have to answer to the general public any more than I do. If people are that invested in the situation, let them check the public records themselves. Let's keep this about food!

I didn't cave to anyone. What I did was answer a legitimate question in a recent Ask Tom column  -- is he making amends for not paying meals taxes and his employees? --  posed by a dozen or so readers following my rave of Donna's thrilling new restaurant-within-a-restaurant at Al Dente, called Roberto's 4.  Some readers were interested in checking out his latest venture, but only if he was doing right by Arlington County and those who had worked with him. I think that's fair.

Funny you should ask - I just got back from there. (We went for a wedding and didn't eat out a lot because of the festivities surrounding that.) But when we did eat out, the best meal we had was sushi at Doraku Sushi in Waikiki. Also, for breakfast in the Waikiki area we really loved Island Vintage Coffee. Every other place for breakfast we found to be a $15 hotel buffet-style.

Another reader to the rescue.

Tom - Heading to DC on Monday for a quick overnight anniversary trip. We are staying at the Westin in Georgetown. So far I have booked Grillfish and Rasika West End for lunch and Kaz Sushi for Omakase dinner (wanted Sushi Taro but no Omakase on Mondays). Picked Grillfish because they have oysters at lunch but am willing to try something else if there is a can't miss lunch spot. Thanks

Grillfish is in a different league than the other restaurants. If your wish is to stay close, try the very good Westend Bistro instead.

I really like Pizzeria Orso under Will Artley - I miss some of the more ambitious pizza topping combos of chefs past, but he makes great small plates, salads, etc. and I still think the high-quality meats topping the pizzas make them special. It gets a little packed with kids for my taste, but I think a lot of people see that as a positive, so to each their own. On a related note, for the chatter seeking tartare, I think their sister restaurant 2941 does a great version.

Thanks for the field reports.

My birthday is coming up in a few weeks, and I have a reservation at Obelisk. To date, Obelisk is still rated my #1 meal experience in DC from my first tasting menu experience there 3 years ago. Since then, I have enjoyed many other fine dining meals including Restaurant Eve, Komi, Sushi Taro omakase and Fiola. However, I still rank Obelisk as my #1. I want to return there for my birthday this year to see if I'm holding on to that memory for nostalgic reasons. What do you think - should I return there or cast my net out to some other fine dining experiences which I have not yet tried (Cityzen comes to mind)?

Obelisk is a gem. But I find I have to work hard to come up with fresh ways to describe my meals there from fall guide to fall guide, because invariably I love the flurry of snacks to start and the sweets to end and I find the main courses to be good but less thrilling.  If you haven't been to CityZen, you ought to give it a whirl.

My impression has always been not just that Donna was financially irresponsible but, more to the point of this chat, let the service deteriorate at all of his restaurants, riding on his reputation as a terrific chef -- aqnd that's why his restaurants all went downhill and closed.

At Al Dente, however, Donna is focused pretty much on the cooking rather than the front of the house.

Tom, Tom Boswell, Tracee Hamilton, and the Reliable Source all chat longer than an hour as a general rule. Bos will usually chat for 2, and Tracee and RS do about that long. Why do you flee at noon? Are you reverse Cinderella?

Ha! The reason I "flee" at noon is because I have this other little part of my job where I go out to eat and write about it.

The Queen Vic (http://www.washingtonpost.com/gog/restaurants/the-queen-vic,1206644.html) on H Street NE is a traditional English pub with suprisingly good food (although I haven't been since they got a new chef a few months ago).

I've not yet been.

Tom, You don't have to publish this but I just wanted you to know that I was recently in Puerto Rico - I had sent your recent recommendations to our group prior to the trip (Jose Enrique) but when we were there, I couldn't remember it so I did a search on my phone for Tom Sietsema/Puerto Rico and an old article came up with recommendations there from several years ago. We had just walked by Dragonfly, which you had singled out, and it looked interesting so we went there for dinner. It was so good! The best (in our eyes, because it made it interesting) was that the power had gone out so when we walked in, the hostess said they were only taking cash since their credit card machine was offline - that was ok with us because we had just gotten off a cruise and had cash. After ordering, the generator blew out! It was pitch black (except for candles and people's iphones) but the food kept coming out and everything was delicious! They gave us a free round of cocktails which was very nice as well. We had a blast and got a sense of what those sensory deprivation restaurants must be like. :) The hostess kept coming over with her phone to light up the dishes because the presentation was beautiful and somewhat lost in the dark. anyway, just wanted you to know that Dragonfly is still tasty after all these years and we appreciate your recommendations! Next time will have to check out Jose Enriques!

Fun story -- and I'm glad to hear Dragonfly is holding up!

Tom, What is an appropriate way to do damage control when dining with an unruly party (in my case, an out-of-town friend and her entourage)? The restaurant in question was extraordinarily accommodating and kind, even when I called (twice!) to add people to our reservation and waited alone for them at the table for 45 minutes after our reservation time. I left what I hope was an appropriate tip for the debacle, but I hardly know if it's enough, or if I can ever show my face there again! What to do when your dining partners are unmitigated boobs?

1) Tip generously.

 

2) Take the waiter, the busboy and the manager aside and thank them profusely.

 

3) Write a note of thanks as a follow-up. You never know how such can help a server or a manager, having praise on file in the form of a letter from a customer.

 

4) Edit your circle of "friends."  (I have!)

When he doesn't pay his taxes, "the general public" (at least residents of the jurisdictions owed) ARE his creditors, so it is our business. And there's no excuse for consistently failing to make payroll. If you can't pay your staff, close the business--don't finagle people into working for free. That said, as an employee he's a valuable asset.

All of which is why I addressed the question in print.

Where's a great place to take mom for Mother's Day - want to go out with three generations of ladies in our family - from 9 to 69!

And you don't yet have reservations for one of the busiest days in the trade? For brunch, I'd start dialing  Tabard Inn, Blue Duck Tavern and Zaytinya.

Then start at 10 or 10:30, or go to lunch a little later. I'm sure there are a lot of questions you don't answer--my question about Mother's Day, for example.

See above for some Mother's Day ideas.

Hi Tom, I've always tried to listen to your advice to others and now I need some. On April 13 I had a dinner reservation at Central at 8:15 for 4 people. We showed up maybe a minute early and was told our table wasn't ready yet, but we could wait at the bar. Sure, no problem! 20 minutes go by and we hear nothing, so a member of the party goes to check with the hostess and is told the people at the table just paid their check and should leave shortly. Another 10 minutes and we check again, and are rudely told oh they are just paying now. At this point we ask to speak to the manager, his only response- its Saturday night, we're busy. Tom, they were not that busy and of course we know that Saturday nights can be which is why we had a reservation! No one at the front, including the manager ever even said I'm sorry. We finally got them to agree to seat us at a different table that was already empty, but why couldn't they do that from the start. I can't figure out why they had us waiting around for 45 minutes for a table that wasn't special. After all this the wait staff was wonderful, but the whole evening was spoiled by the front of house. I should mention this dinner was for my 30th birthday so it was supposed to be special. You always say to ask for the manager, but what is one to do when the manager is just as rude as the hostess? Thanks!

I'm sorry to hear your 30th was made less festive as a result of the less-than-welcome "welcome" at Central. Here's hoping a superior at the restaurant sees your complaint and responds. (I can't imagine a "not busy" Saturday at Central, or why no one could seat you when free tables were available, but there's not time right now to check in with the restaurant.)

Definitely go to Chef Mavro and to Alan Wong's.

Two more good ideas ...

sorry, but I have to point out that that's an oxymoron, lol

It used to be. No more, not in London certainly.

Hello! I may be too late but do you have any recommendations for a weekend lunch or brunch in McLean or Great Falls VA? Somewhere not too rowdy, moderately priced, good food but exact cuisine isn't important. I don't know that area at all. Potomac or Bethesda are other possibilities, but VA would be better. Thanks!

McLean: Bistro Vivant

Great Falls: Brasserie Jacques

Potomac: Old Angler's Inn, the best it's been in years.

 

And that concludes another chat. Thanks for joining me, gang, and I hope to see you back here 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.
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