Ask Tom: Spring Dining Guide

May 22, 2013

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema talk about his spring dining guide, and entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

I've been reading you and following the chats for a long time, but the latest "dining guide" seems like a bad joke. It's the worst I can ever recall in many years in Washington and it seems maybe you were just bored and/or lazy. It's a waste of time and ink. Your faithful readers and chatters deserve something with more substance and imagination. We usually hang on to them, but this one has already gone to the recycle bin. Maybe you need a sabbatical or another job at this point?

And good morning to you, dear reader!

 

Hey, I'm open to feedback, pro or con, but ... what specifically didn't you care for? You're not helping me or fellow readers by just hating on my collection of reviews.

 

One thing I've learned after all these years of  writing guides: There is no one compilation or theme that's going to please everyone. As in springs past, I chose to re-review places that I hadn't been to in awhile, or that had undergone significant changes.

 

Maybe you didn't like my choice of  "then & again" subjects?  That's fair. That's useful. The way I see it, if a reader comes away with even two or three fresh ideas of where to eat, my efforts are worth it.

 

Thanks for joining me this morning, gang. Lots of news already this week: Did you hear that the revered Tadich Grill, which I praised in a long-ago Magazine pieceis coming to Washington, along with Todd English, who plans to open a modern Mexican restaurant downtown?

 

Let's rock & roll.

Hi, Tom. Did you think about adding Range to your Spring dining guide? I know you gave it glowing reviews when it first came out, but feedback you've gotten since has definitely not been positive. Do you think a re-review is in order, and if so, why was it not a good fit for the Spring Guide?

I was tempted to re-review Range, given the myriad service complaints I've received since my March 10 critique. But so soon after? And given the dozens of places up for serious consideration in the spring guide? I thought better.

Hi Tom--love the chats and column. I know you have discussed using disguises and different names to hide your identity, but how can you be anonymous when dining at a 4 seat restaurant like Roberto Donna's Al Dente?

I wasn't. But I also didn't give the chef any clue in advance that I was going to dine at Roberto's 4. And since Mr. Donna was basically the only person cooking, he couldn't exactly change course just for my posse.  There were no obvious lags in the meal, in other words, that gave me that impression.

I just read that New York City's Village Voice newspaper had a long-time food critic named Robert Sietsema. Would he happen to be your brother? If so, what do you think led you both into the same field -- Perhaps your parents' cooking?

Alas, my distant cousin Robert, also from the Midwest, was just let go as restaurant critic for the Village Voice.

I've had many friends in the beer/wine/liquor business (front, management, etc.), and the one constant is that everyone must know as much as possible about the product. There are always six-packs, bottles, etc. sent home for tasting (and sharing with lucky friends!). How much can it cost to feed the staff? Not allowing servers to taste sounds like a business-killer to me.

Me, too! 

 

Point of clarification: "Feeding" the staff of a restaurant, which some establishments do before or after a work shift, is different from having staff taste the food from the menu.

 

The cost of the latter really depends on the size of the staff and the quality and range of the cooking.  But the cost doesn't have to be prohibitive.  On an under-cover waiter gig in San Francisco years ago, I recall plates of one restaurant's specials being set out for the crew of a dozen or so servers and busboys to sample with a fork or spoon before dinner service. One or two bites gave us/them a good idea of how to describe the dishes to diners.

Hi Tom, My boyfriend's 30th birthday is this month and I'd like to take him out for dinner. He loves anything Asian (spicy or not) and I can't decide between Izakaya Seki, Toki Underground, Little Serow, or the new Daikaya? If you had to chose (and cost isn't a deciding factor - we're not talking Sushi Taro here), which one would you prefer? Thanks!

Gosh, they are all good choices. Izakaya Seki is the most serene of the bunch.  I love the cocktails and a seat at the bar at Toki, but its small size means you are likely to wait. Same thing at Little Serow. I dream about the heat and the sass of its regional Thai cooking, but you have to be primed to wait, or eat really early. Upstairs at Daikaya, the new Japanese pub from the owner of Sushiko, is great fun. It's the also the newest of the bunch.  Does that help narrow your choices?

I just wanted to let you know about some pretty horrible service we had at Del Campo last week. It's a shame, because the food was great, but we probably won't return. It took almost 10 minutes before a server even approached our table. After ordering wine, 20 more minutes in we had to flag down someone to ask where it was (server was MIA). Our three glasses were then brought out at the same time as our appetizers. We finished our first glass of wine and the apps, and our server was MIA again.

Seeing as it almost took a half an hour for the first round, we decided to try and order another glass to enjoy it with our main courses. Again, couldn't find out server so asked another staff member for some help. He said he would let our server know. After more waiting, wine came out exact same time as main courses. Our server never once came back to ask if we needed anything the entire time we were eating. She did however come once we were finished, and whisked away our wine glasses, not asking if we wanted another glass, coffee or dessert. Mind you, it wasn't crowded, a Tuesday night around 8, and there had to have been 10 staff members roaming the dining room looking at tables. They obviously weren't very observant, never noticing our empty glasses and annoyed body language. At this point I decided to say something to a manager. Waiting another 10 min for one to appear, she apologized but didn't offer anything to rectify the situation, and stated that since their bar is a craft cocktail bar, it can get backed up (again, restaurant was not overly crowded and we only had wine). Her answer didn't bother to address how our server was missing the whole time. We were there for 2 hours having had 2 glasses wine each, and app and main course. Two tables on either side of us were exasperated as well. It seemed like all wait staff and mangers were fresh recruits and new to the field. Extremely upsetting when spending $300 for three people and receiving such horrible service.

Ouch. I hope Victor Albisu, the chef-owner of the freshly-minted South American grill, reads this and takes action. His meaty cooking deserves better than what you experienced.

I am pregnant and hugely craving good Indian food. Rasika is the best, but when I want comfort food version of Indian, I head to Bombay Curry Company in Del Ray for butter chicken, naan, and dahl. Where can I get the equivalent in the District? I live in Shaw so bonus points if it's nearby!

For what you crave, Masala Art in Tenleytown is your best bet;  the restaurant delivers to within two miles of its kitchen. I'm also hot on the recently pre-viewed Malgudi in Glover Park, mostly for its intriguing southern Indian fare (lots of meatless choices).

Hi, Tom. My husband and I have an anniversary coming up and we were wondering if there was anywhere for dinner and dancing in the District. We loved the Melrose at the Park Hyatt. Any suggestions?

That's a tough one. The only venue that comes to mind at the moment is Spirit of Washington -- the dinner cruise on the Potomac, which I'm guessing isn't what you are looking for.  Chatters?

Your Spring Dining Guide said some interesting things about the Inn at Potowmack Farm, and you gave it 2.5 stars. (And the photo editor gave it a lot of play in the Magazine.) If it were 3 or 4 stars, I would understand unequivocally that you recommend we make the 50 mile drive to Lovettsville. But at 2.5 -- worth the drive or not?

In my book, two and half stars translate as "good to excellent," making The Restaurant at Potowmack Farm (among other places) definitely worth the trek. 

i was disappointed to see your review of Argia in the dining guide, but if it is not as good under new management then it is what it is. That said we can walk to the place and I was wondering if you found enough not shellfish (allergy) options that you can steer your way around the menu to a satisfying, if not great meal.

Oh, there are lots of dishes at Argia's that aren't fishy: minestrone, pizza, most of the pastas and so on.

(Please excuse if submitted more than once -- did not appear to be going through): Thank you for your First Bite on B Too, but I have to note you didn't really give any insight into whether you liked the place. For myself and three friends, we tried the big new three neighborhood restaurants (B Too, le Diplomate, and Ghibellina) and loved the other two, but left B Too seeing no reason to hurry back. For all three, they push the price points of 14th Street -- and we are willing to pay if there is some justification -- but for B Too, we didn't see the value. My duck breast was admittedly superb tasting, but at $24 and approximately 3 ounces of meat with NOTHING else, was just not worth it. Similarly, we thought the $14 mac and cheese was expensive, but decided to split it. We all joked that hte $9 Costco mac and cheese was just as good and about ten times as big. We also found the service lackluster, but like the other two new retaurants were willing to recognize the need to work out the kinks. The restaurant is gorgeous, and since I live in the neighborhood hope it is a success, but we did not find it worth the costs. Any thoughts?

I liked, but didn't love, B Too. Yes, it's new and yes, it needs some polishing. Go over my preview again and you'll note there were two dishes I definitely thought needed work. Fun space and lively crowd, though.

I see that Dutch Midwesterners head for more interesting food the minute they get a chance. ;-) Is your cousin from Iowa?

Robert is from Michigan, actually.

Just a wonderful addition to Washington, DC. Very authentic and fun. The food was very good. Service (at the bar) excellent. There were 400 people there at 1pm Sunday for brunch. All seats taken inside and out on the lovely patios. People inside waiting, and then people outside waiting to just get in the door to speak with the host(ess). All people were young and fascinating, except for a few oldsters, like ourselves. Love it. And love the tilework.

Music to Stephen Starr's ears, no doubt!  (He's the owner of the white-hot bistro.)

Hi Tom- 2 unrelated questions- First, going to table tonight for the first time after hoping to go there for a while! What must we order? Anything to stay away from? (I know their menu changes but I thought you might have some ideas). With all the new Italian places opening up in the city it made me think- where would you go if you wanted to have the best pasta in DC? (not best Italian restaurant but specifically the best pasta). Any high hopes for any of the new italian places? Thanks!

1) You're right, the menu at Table changes frequently. If they're offered, however, try the (vegetarian) spinach flan with asparagus, the sardines with frisee and white beans and sliced veal shoulder on a raft of puff pastry.

 

2) Best pasta I had recently was at Ripple in Cleveland Park, where new chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley does this phenomenal spaghetti with olive oil-poached tuna. I dream about that combination.

Hi Tom, Thanks for your chats and all you do! Any advice on restaurants in Newport RI? I'll be there for a long weekend! Thanks!!

Newport, anyone?

Hi Tom, You're in Chicago for 3 nights on a not-so-generous expense budget ($40-50) for dinner. Where do you eat? Any type of food is ok - just want it to be the best and there are so many tempting options in Chicago! Thanks!

Chicago is one of my fave food destinations. Here's my most recent Postcard from Tom based from there.

I know this is the Spring Dining Guide chat, but I just had to put in my two cents about Le Diplomat, and ask a question as well. My fiance and I went last Thursday evening to Ghibellina to grab a drink and check out the place in general. We figured we'd either eat there or wander to Etto to try them. Both places had a 45 minutes wait so on a whim we walked across to Le Diplomat. We were seated immediately - lucky us! The food completely lived up to the reputation, and I've heard many friends say the same. I would go back every week for the warm shrimp salad alone, and the accompaniments on the cheese plate. My fiance also got a French beer they had on tap that was very refreshing and had an interesting (in a good way) taste. Question though - the service was so-so. The waittress herself was really nice, had great cheese and drink suggestions and was overall open and pleasant...when she came around. Which was very infrequent. To the point where we had to track her down to place our drink orders and the bill. Has that happened to you before? How do you tip on that?

Indeed it has! And just last Sunday, at brunch at a restaurant that's been reviewed in the Magazine earlier this year! Awful, awful server.  He blamed the bar for our slow Bloody Marys, never inquired about our food, etc.  One of his colleagues  was enlisted (by my party) to  fulfill a few requests and she was *awesome.*  On my way out I slipped her some cash and told the manager how great she was.  Meanwhile, the original server got a  15 percent tip, less than my usual 20 percent habit. And I only left that because I figured he might have to pool tips with the staff and the runners/bus boys were excellent, so why penalize them?

We have been going to Argia's for years and like the food and service. While it is not the Blue Duck Tavern (your latest recommendation for a family restaurant), on a Thursday night after work, it is a great place to take the family for a solid meal. There is an extreme lack of moderately priced restaurants in the DC area and for families. That's why Argia's has expanded, why Matchbox has multiple locations and why Sweetwater is slammed every night. These restaurants do a great job and their food and service are solid. I know you will say that you gave Argia's the "satisfactory" rating but people mostly look at star ratings, you gave it a 1 star out of 4. If I had never been there before, I would never go to a 1 star rated restaurant. I don't think you take in consideration of prices and family needs. An example would be (and only a DC food critic would complain about this) that you knocked Argia's for large portions. Also, didn't a poster complain last week about being charged a lot for 4 ravolis from one of your favorite restaurants. A family can share large portions during the meal, and even a working mom can take the leftovers to work for a nice lunch. I know it is not innovative cooking, but c'mon, 1 star? Are you out of touch with regular diners?

Hey, I love inexpensive neighborhood places as much as you do, but I also like places that emphasize quality and care, too, and on that note, someone at Argia's isn't paying sufficient attention.

 

As for big food portions, I'm really concerned about the obesity epidemic in this country and feel compelled on occasion to point out that large serving sizes are part of that problem.  Wouldn't you rather pay a little less for a portion that was actually what you need/want now rather than tomorrow, too? 

 

P.S. As for being out of touch, I eat out all over the region and with all sorts of different diners (single moms included).   So I get to hear what they like and don't like about restaurants.

I'm headed to NYC for a spur of the moment trip this weekend. I'd love to take my host out for a nice brunch in the city to thank her for letting me stay with her. Anything you're over the moon about? I'm open to anything -- moderately priced, Lower East Side or Brooklyn would work. Places I've enjoyed in the past in NYC include Edi & The Wolf and Pies n' Thighs. Thank you!

I had a really nice (Asian-style) brunch at Red Farm in the West Village over the long James Beard awards weekend earlier this month.

Tom, you've been saying some great things about Le Grenier on H Street recently...any plans to do a complete review for the magazine?

I haven't committed to anything further than the preview. Maybe you've read about the bazillion new restaurants that have blossomed in recent months?

I love it when Tom has special themes for his dining guides. You can get all the "regular" reviews just by searching his columns and chats on the Post; his "now vs. then" or "why I downgraded these places" is fascinating and useful in its own way.

Bless you.

 

Honestly, I don't mind criticism. I want to know what readers think and how I might improve. But what I don't care for is an anonymous "hate it" without any supporting detail.  It's kind of like posters here who say they don't like X restaurant without providing evidence of  why.

That first comment was quite rude and unhelpful. I enjoyed the Dining Guide, and appreciate knowing which restaurants are still worth going to. Also, my two cents on one of the restaurants you visited: I live near Argia's and am crazy about their Italian Shrimp and Grits! So rich. I can't vouch for the rest of the menu as I never order anything else, but you can't go wrong with this one.

Thanks for your kind words and I'll have to try the shrimp and grits at Argia's next time (maybe for the 2020 spring guide?)

Tom -- so Siroc is back? Weren't you down on the place for a while?

Good memory. I was lukewarm on the restaurant -- until I went back, twice recently, for the spring guide.  Which is another reason why I like to revisit places, and report on them.

Tom, if hair in your food and gum on the salt shaker still manage to merit a 1/2 star rating, how bad does a place have to be to get 0 stars?

I gave Lauriol Plaza what basically amounted to a "poor" rating (not quite "satisfactory") because the scene and setting are fun -- who doesn't love a rooftop? -- and if you hit the right dish, a diner can deal. Hey, the beans are good! And the service is unformally on top of things -- aside, of course, from the wad of gum they overlooked on my pepper shaker.

Isn't Sietsema Finnish, not Dutch?

The last name is actually Friesian.

Tom, given the recent changes and the like, would you eat at Bandolero for a fun evening out now or not?

I haven't returned since my critique of the place, and I haven't heard anything that would make me want to rush back.

Tom, I have noted of late you seem to frequently recommend Bistro Provence to the chatters. I have not been there for a while because on my previous visit I found food that was good, but not great, absolutely atrocious service (e.g. could not get water glasses refilled at any time during the meal) and very few wines that listed for under $100. Overall, we found dining there to be an unpleasant experience. We felt we did not get value for what we paid. So, has it gotten better with time? When was the last time you dined there? Thanx.

I guess you missed my spring guide, in which I gave Yannick Cam's restaurant 2.5 stars (and dinged the service)?

I was saving that gum for later!

Two things bothered me about the gum sighting:

 

1) What kind of diner does that?

 

2) What kind of server doesn't notice that?

We're taking our visitors this weekend (ages 4 & 6) to the Natural History museum on Saturday morning. Any ideas on a good place to eat lunch after? We'll be driving so location isn't such an issue.

Try Mitsitam Cafe, in the American Indian Museum on the other side of the Mall.  And focus on the food from South America rather than the dry buffalo burgers and tacos.

Hi-- The family is traveling to Richmond over this upcoming weekend. Any recommendations for a nice (but not outrageously priced) place for dinner for 2 adults and 3 kids (two teens and a 9 year old)? Thanks!

I haven't been myself, but both Roosevelt and Dutch & Company are getting good buzz  both from the local press in Richmond and food friends of mine. If you go to either restaurant, please let me know what you think.

Tom, First off a major tip of my hat to your spring dining guide (and to the WaPo Tech team it was a really impressive format). I agree with you about the pleasures of Siroc (in terms of price point and food quality). However, now that Elisir (another good DC restaurant that started with too high a price point for me) has brought its prices and stuffiness down, which one would you pick in a head to head (especially for a possible dating spot)?

Kudos to the designers! I loved the online look of this year's guide, too. 

 

Siroc and Osteria Elisir are different experiences. The former has more polished service, the latter has a finer setting. I'd give the osteria a slight edge for a date, however.

I agree with the earlier poster about your Spring Guide. I found it lacking in both content and information. First, I couldn't tell whether the ratings were the old ones or new ones. Second, I couldn't figure out why you would bother to include restaurants with one star or no stars in the guide. Was this perhaps because the ratings are really the new ones and not the old ones? That said, I hope that your "good" rating for Siroc is a NEW good rating and not an old one. Sign me confused!

Are you ... serious? Why would I post old ratings?  (Scratching my head.)

Was in Charlottesville for UVA graduation this past weekend. Got to eat at both Glass Haus and Zinc. Yum! Totally agree on the praise for Glass Haus :)

Yes to Zinc, too!

Tom, I enjoy your dining guide and understand the desire of the Post to sell ads, but to almost overwhelm the issue with restaurant ads and a pull-out section with what looked like reviews (but were not) seems to be overkill and takes away from your product. It's not your fault, but the leadership at the Post is slowly killing its paying subscriber base with these types of stunts.

Thanks for the feedback.  But the insert within the guide is marked "Advertisement" at the top and is in a different design format than the Magazine proper. If someone thinks its my prose, well ... I'd like to believe WP readers are smart enough to know the difference.

Good morning, Tom. We are heading to Charlottesville for a two-day visit, and I wanted to get your thoughts on where to go. If you had time for a great dinner and a couple of fun lunches, where would you go? Price isn't an problem, all cuisines welcome. Thanks!

My fave dinner spot there at the moment is Glass Haus Kitchen.  Whiskey Jar is fun for lunch or a late-night brew or drink and Bluegrass is great for weekend brunch.

I think there's a difference between large portions at a neighborhood restaurant, where basically everyone is a regular and knows what to expect and will be going right home so they can take the leftovers, vs a restaurant that caters to tourists, business diners, or people out for a special evening. At the former, large portions can be a value - order one meal for your family of four. At the latter, it's just gluttony or waste.

Thanks for your comment. But I kind of like the European model, where you eat what you get in restaurants and tomorrow's another day.

It amazes me, the number of grumblers here who can't read. Your dining guide always spells out your criteria.

(Sigh.)

Nice job Tom. One small gripe you could had had one more VA restaurant outside the beltway.

I actually went to a lot more places than I ended up writing about, including in Virginia. But because of space and other considerations, I ended up featuring the baker's dozen you saw in the Magazine. Some places were just not interesting enough to write up again.

Hi Tom! I just read that San Francisco's Tadich Grill is planning to open a new location in Washington, D.C. So much of Tadich's magic stems from the sourdough bread, fresh seafood, and classic interior. Do you think this a good idea? This CA girl misses home and really hopes it will be a success!

Tadich Grill is a strong brand. But it does seem odd that a seafood restaurant so identified with the Bay Area would want to replicate the experience (not easy!) on the East Coast.  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing if the DC cioppino matches the one I know from my days in SF.

Do you get to chose where you dine or are you "required" to go certain places by the post?

I pick all the restaurant I go to for work. Part of my job is knowing what to cover, and what's skippable.

I tried to find a postcard in the archives but my search-fu seems to be lacking. My wife and I are about to head off for a week in London to celebrate our 10th anniversary. Can you recommend any don't miss places, both for a slightly more formal celebratory dinner (but no tie required) and for regular down and dirty meals? Thanks!

Based on reader feedback, my Postcard from London remains fresh.

It seemed obvious that the rating given must be for this time around, but the few words summarizing the way it was in the past didn't include the old rating, which would have been helpful.

Fair point. Thanks.

I don't like leftovers, so I really don't want to pay full price for them. I try to avoid producing them when I cook for myself. No, everybody doesn't think x, y or z "tastes better the 2nd day." And it really doesn't taste better the 2nd day when it's been slowly steaming in styrofoam.

Thanks for sharing.

Hi Tom, my mom is coming into town for the holiday weekend and I'd like to take her out to dinner. Any suggestions for a special place that won't break the bank? She's a pretty middle-of-the-road diner; not picky but not super adventurous either (read: no head cheese or bone marrow).

Mom might Old Angler's Inn, the classic American charmer in Potomac. Or the new Etto for pizza in Logan Circle. Or Central for a great burger or goat cheese Caesar at the bar.

Tom, you must be doing something right, because you have HATERS! LOL Seriously, you do a good job, you can't please everyone, and the grumpy-for-no-reason crowd need to cut you some slack.

I figure I'm doing my job if some people hate me and some people love me. I learn from everyone.

 

Lunch time! Thanks for spending the hour with me. I look forward to "seeing" you again next Wednesday, same time. Enjoy the long weekend, all.

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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