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

Jun 12, 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.

How do you handle a sommelier who happily agrees with you that a wine is a bit off and then suggests another wine with a bit more pizazz, but find out that pizzazz adds a significant amount of cash to the previously chosen wine? Does diner outright ask the sommelier if the wine is the same price as the previous or does one just enjoy the wine until the bill is presented? Latter case happened but awkward situation. I chose the wine but other party paid the bill. i felt the guilt as I initially chose for value and expected drinkability. Shouldn't all wines on a list attended to by a sommelier be respectable?

Wine buyers must be pro-active. The moment the sommelier offers an alternative is a diner's cue to ask if the  suggestion is within say, $5 or $10 dollars of the wine the diner turned down. You can also ask to see the wine list again, and have the sommelier point out a second choice; that way, you can see the price and either agree to it or ask for something less pricey.

 

And to address your other question, I don't know of any good sommelier who goes out of his or her way to list lesser wines. Sometimes, you simply can't guage the quality of what's in the bottle until it's unsealed, sniffed annd swished around in your mouth.

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for another hour of food chat.  Some welcome news to launch today's discussion:

 

 

TACO TIME: "We're ready to go!" Victor Albisu told me yesterday -- and I had to ask if I was hearing him correctly, that his long-awaited Taco Bamba in Falls Church was really, truly opening June 17. Sure enough, the chef of the freshly minted Del Campo in the District  says he and his co-partner -- his mother, Rosa Susinski, who owns a Latin market nearby -- plan to start selling tacos, sopas and Mexican small plates from their new storefront beginning at lunch on Monday.

 

Part of the reason for the delay: Albisu changed construction companies after the project was underway last year. The silver lining in the epic wait:  "I got my pick of people." The chef says he was able to hire the best cooks, including one from Mexico with a long family history in the taco-making trade.

 

The food will star traditional and chef-inspired tacos. Translation: Look for tacos with chorizo and roast pork but also sweetbreads and duck confit. Vegetarians can look forward to a "Spicy Shroom" taco filled with portobellos, grilled corn, chipotle and more.

 

Albisu calls the setting "an urban but clean environment" with blue-gray walls and the name of the shop spray-painted in bright red. Stools ring the perimeters; a patio out front can accommodate grazers, too. Chalkboard menus will flag the daily specials. Tacos and other dishes will run between $3 and $12.

 

Located at 2190 Pimmit Drive in Falls Church, Taco Bamba (703-639-0505) will be open for lunch and dinner daily, with breakfast being added to the menu in the near future. "I feel like the neighborhood needs it," Albisu says of both the food and the schedule. Let the line start here.

 

On with the show!

Tom, Were you more surprised that you received elevated service at Table, or that another server blamed the restaurants poor service for everyone else because you were in the house?

I was grateful to the reader who pointed out the very different -- the very glacial -- service he received on a night I was dining at Table.  And I'll continue to call out those restaurants  that engage in such bad practices when I hear about them. 

 

Evaulating service is getting trickier for me, no thanks to state-of-the-art technology, but it's not impossible. In places where I'm known, for instance, I'm careful about observing what's happening elsewhere in the restaurant, away from my table. Occasionally, I'll also send trusted friends into places I might have questions about, to guage the way they're received and treated.

After 17+ years of slinging drinks in DC and serving many of the most known figures in the region, I gave up last year and took a year off. I went back to work recently at a large private club outside of the city. I don't miss the inner beltway and the people that frequent the restaurants. It's wonderful being somewhere where the members are forbidden to post on YELP or even use cell phones other than texting. I get addressed by my real name and not "Hey bartender/waiter/server". Life is good.....

Your post sounds like fodder for a chapter in a book I'd like to read.

 

So tell us, what's the most outrageous request you got in almost two decades? The biggest tip?  And how have drinking patterns (and choices) changed during your long run?

Any recommendations for Krakow, Poland? Thanks.

Chatters?

Just wanted to give a shout out to Nopa - we had a fantastic dinner there this past weekend. About half of our party of 6 showed up 30 minutes before our reservation and they asked us if we preferred to be seated or wait at the bar. We chose to wait at the bar and minutes after everyone else arrived, we were seated. This gracious welcome set the stage for impeccable service throughout the meal. After we told our waiter (didn't catch his name) that we were in no hurry, he assured us that he would pace the meal accordingly and he did just that. Very attentive service without being overbearing- we were all really impressed! The food was also really delicious. The raw clams- a rare find these days- were sweet as can be and tasted very fresh. The gnocchi was light and potato-y, the salads were great, and the twice fried chicken is a new contender for best in DC! The only mis-step was the mushy frozen fries, the beefy hangar steak deserved better company. Another notable- they actually served the red wine at the proper temperature. This is a pet peeve of mine as I have been drinking too many glasses of so-warm-its-almost-hot red wine. All in all a great night- kudos to NoPa!

Your early rave of the modern American restaurant in Penn Quarter will be music to Nopa's ears.

 

I agree: I LOVE the fried chicken (curiously listed as an appetizer, but what the heck) and I really appreciate the cool, just-right temperature of the red wines I've sipped at the latest concept from Ashok Bajaj.

Tom - I would love to know what you find most challenging about your job and what you love most about it. Thanks!

I honestly think I have one of the best jobs, not just at the Washington Post, but in the industry. There are probably fewer than a dozen publications in the country that support a full-time food critic and devote the resources necessary to the job right.  (Consumers of restaurant reviews, you would be surprised at how small some restaurant budgets are these days, even for some of the biggest brands in the business.)

 

Most challenging part of the job: Like every other beat, this one has turned into a 24/7   job.  News breaks, and restaurants open, seemingly all the time. It is not unusual for me to be on the phone with a chef at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning these days.  I also get more than 100 emails a day, mostly reader requests -- and from all over the world. Keeping up with the communication is a challenge, and I don't do it as well as I did even a year ago.

 

What I love most: exchanges with readers; discovering (good) new places to eat, although it's harder than ever to keep anything a secret before publication;  making a positive impact on businesses that deserve to have a full house; and breaking bread with interesting people, because unlike other jobs, it doesn't really matter who I eat with as long as I can sample the full range of a menu. I could go on.

What are the best places to grab a quick, relatively inexpensive lunch in the L'Enfant Plaza, Smithsonian, DOE-area?

One of my faves: Mitsitam Cafe, in the American Indian museum, which I highlighted in my recent spring guide.  (Here's a video the WP also made of the cafeteria on the Mall.)

Hi Tom, love your chat. I'm submitting early. Two cool mothers and a teen going out Friday night. Any place fun to go and eat in town? Thought about Co co sala, but we want something more with fun food, atmosphere and even activities.

Comet Ping Pong in Upper NW for pizza and paddles?  

 

Hill Country  for barbecue and live music? (Bring some ear plugs.) 

 

Maybe Union Market on 5th St. NE for some oysters at Rappahannock, a great sandwich at Red Apron and shopping at Salt & Sundry?

 

Chatters, please feel free to weigh in with your suggestions.

If you were to do a Postcard from Del Ray, which three restaurants would you feature? Are any newly-opened places there on your radar?

Ha! I'd probably point diners to Del Ray Cafe, Evening Star Cafe and maybe the just-opened Sushi Bar, which is semi-controversial in the 'hood due to its policy of not serving kids. (My miniature greyhound, Charlie, loves the peanut butter ice cream for dogs sold at Dairy Godmother in Del Ray.)

Hi Tom--I'll be visiting Montreal in July; do you have any recommendations? (I looked for a Postcard from Montreal, but I couldn't find one.) I'm open to any kind of food, as long as it's tasty! Thanks!

Here's my (admittedly) long-ago Postcard from one of my favorite Canadian cities.

Any intel on the rumors that Masala Art is looking to move to southwest DC? Someone should tell them that there is space in the old White Tiger building at 3rd & Mass Ave NE now that the deal with Pete's Apizza has reportedly fallen through. That location has the BEST outdoor seating area in the city!

The owner of Masala Art in Tenleytown confirmed this morning that he intends to open an Indian restaurant of the same name at 1101 4th St. SW, in the building occupied by Station 4.  

 

"No lease signed yet," says Atul Bhola, but he hopes to finalize the plan by the end of this week or next.  Seven miles away from the original, the future Masala Art will have 110 seats and a slightly different Indian menu, adds Bhola, who declined to be more specific since the dishes are being worked out. Once the lease is signed, he hopes to get designers into the fresh space and open within five months.

 

This is great news not just for Indian chow hounds, but for anyone trying to find good food on the waterfront.

Hi Tom! I've realized that some of my favorite recent meals have been at restaurants that have housemade tomato jam/ketchup. I'm thinking of an incredible Eggs Benedict at Art & Soul, a burger at Ted's Bulletin, and brunch at Lavagna. Where else should I head for this new fix of mine? Thank you!

Not to be missed: the generous bread board at Range, where the condiments include a terrific tomato-ham jam made from stewed tomatoes and ham trimmings.

My husband and i would love to check out H Street but don't know where to start. Any place where a couple of 40 year olds won't stand out too much?

Le Grenier might make a nice (French) springboard to the neighborhood. Do you like Ethiopian? I'm always happy to find myself in the airy, arty dining room at Ethiopic.  I love Toki Underground for cocktails and ramen, but you want to be there early to avoid the usual wait.

Thank you for the recommendation of Cakes & Ale in Decatur, GA. My daughter and I had dinner there a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed superb service and food. Perfectly prepared Rib-Eye Cap and the Pork Loin with a side of cardamom whipped sweet potatoes. Returned for lunch the next day and sat in their small patio for salads and local brews. Didn’t think it possible, but the service was even better. They even brought a water bowl for the pup. Took home some of the strawberry macarons from the bakery. Definitely will return to Cakes &

So happy to hear you got to taste-test -- twice! -- one of my recommendations from my recent Postcard from Atlanta. Cakes & Ale rocks.

Hey, the earlier chat made me think I should check out their website and it's great. I more inclined to dine there. And the other restaurants in the group have the same format! Including Rasika, which we voted as the worst website and was specifically mentioned in a chat with Ashok Bajaj here. You made a difference!

Well, you *diners* made a difference. Mr. Bajoj listened and paid attention.

Heading for New Orleans for an overdue vacation, what are your and the peanuts must eats? I need suggestions from hole-in-the-wall, mid range, and maybe one fancy treat. Thanks for the help!

Among my must-eats: Cochon for a piggy feast (plus moonshine) and Herbsaint for something finer (but hardly stuffy).

Any word on the opening of Teddy? If you were dining out, not for work, which of the new 14th street restaurants would you choose?

 No word on Teddy.

 

 As for where to graze on 14th St, right this moment, my answer is Etto, followed by more Etto. The trim storefront brings together the talents from Two Amys and Standard.

Hi Tom, I've read some of your pizza reviews in the past and I was wondering, what is your number one favorite pizza place in the area, please? Thanks! Emily

Gosh, there are some *great* places for pie these days. Anthony Pilla does a stellar job at Urbana, as does Will Artley at Orso in Falls Church.  I also dig the work at Pupatella in Arlington. Then there's the aforementioned Etto, which I previewed today in the Food section.

Hi Tom, My parents love to go out to eat and one of the things that turns a good restaurant into a great one in their eyes is the bread. Bread isn't something that you see discussed in restaurant reviews, though. Could you share any moderately-priced restaurants that serve excellent bread in DC/MD, please? Thank you! Emily

Hands down, Le Diplomate in Logan Circle is baking the best bread in the city. I could easily make a feast of the bounty the French newcomer puts on the table. A lot of places are dispensing with the fillip, alas.

Tom, you'd been raving about Le Diplomate, so we went for my husband's birthday. He spent a year in Bordeaux so knows from French food, and I just wanted to say that it did not disappoint--food and service were great. Everything was delicious, but I would be happy going back just for a glass of wine and the mushroom tart. The only negative is the noise. We were glad to be seated in the atrium (they said nothing was available outside), but still I had to ask the waiter to repeat things several times. I get that it's a fun, buzzy bistro, but it seems like they could do something about the decibel level.

The optimal time to address noise is when a restaurant is being *built,* but there are still ways a business can dampen sound afterward: add sound-absorbing panels on the walls and ceiling, apply carpet or rugs, cover tables with linens, etc.

Acme Oyster Bar looks a bit like a dive but serves up incredible food, esp. oysters on the half shell, at reasonable prices. A friend went there this week on my recommendation and raved about it. It's a must whenever I get down that way.

New Orleans is all about great dives!

I can't tell from your response whether he is opening a second location or closing the first one. If the latter I will be extremely bummed as I love the food there and it is nearby (but glad that SW is getting more delicious food options!).

I should have made that clear: We are poised to have TWO Masala Arts in town.

I LOVE Chez Cora in Montreal for breakfast, the crepes & brioche french toast are wonderful. Schwartz's Deli for smoked meat is also a good stop.

Oui and oui.

Thank you so much for answering all of our questions, Tom! You rock!

I'm trying! (But again, I plead: Please send questions in advance of the live chat, which allows me time to do some reporting and finessing of my answers. Because once 11 a.m. rolls around, things get crazy for me. Hosting a chat is like doing TV live.)

Forgot to mention - I'm vegetarian. Any no ham tomato jam?

I've had tomato jam at both Lincoln and Perry's in the past year or so. Not sure if the condiments are still on their menus.

Or rather near it. Put your name in and head to a nearby watering hole. They'll text you once they can seat you. I'm partial to Biergartenhaus for a good variety of German brews. Pop by someplace afterwards for a night cap and you've got your own personal pub crawl. But please, use Metro or a taxi afterwards!

Or Uber, my personal fave mode of transport when I'm not in the driver's seat.

Tom, A more recent place that has opened in Montreal since your last postcard is Brasserie T on Rue Jean Mance in downtown. They make their own charcuterie, have a nice wine list, and the Bavette-Frites rivals any steak-frites I have ever eaten in Paris. It's always popular so make a reservation or go early.

Lots of good ideas from the audience today.

Is there no menu on Etto's website? What a horrible website!

Oh dear. We've identified a flaw!

To me, this is a guarantee of great food. I always pick my Latin American restaurants in a strange city by whether or not they have a market attached!

Good tip to keep in mind. Thanks for sharing.

Some of my relatives are coming to visit the U.S. for the first time this summer and will be staying with me for part of the time they're here. I would like to take them out for a nice dinner and give them a good impression of our area but am having trouble picking a place. I am looking for a place in D.C., Arlington, or Alexandria with good food, good service, and a fun atmosphere. However, I also need a place (1) that can accommodate a reservation for seven people; (2) that is child-friendly enough for three kids 10-17; (3) where one can wear casual dress; (4) where the entrees are around $20/person; and (5) that isn't too loud (understanding a foreign language is hard enough without loud background noise). So far I've come up with Gadsby's Tavern or one of the Clyde's but wonder if I could do better. Do you have any recommendations?

I do! I do! Grab a picnic table -- early --  and dig into the great barbecue outside the beer-gardenlike Standard in Logan Circle ... head to the always-sunny Majestic in Old Town, for winning American fare ... or check out Ray's the Steaks, the affordable beef house (sides included!) in Arlington.

A little on-line search turned up a menu: http://washingtondc.menupages.com/restaurants/etto/menu

Awesome. Grazie.

Tom - Let's say it's your birthday and you can dine anywhere you want in the area. No restrictions on diet or price. What are your top three choices? Only caveat is, it can't be Inn at Little Washington because that's a bit too far. Thanks!

Hmmm. Tough! I'm looking forward to going back to Trummer's on Main in Clifton to check out its new chef; the formal dining room at Palena in Cleveland Park, which I haven't experienced in too long; and the omakase menu at Sushi Taro, where the chef cooks right in front of  just a handful of diners.

 

That help narrow your choices?

We are looking for a venue for our November rehearsal dinner in or near Old Town Alexandria. We are expecting 20-25 people and assume that we will need a private room for a group that size. Because the rehearsal will be on a Saturday night I am having trouble locating spots that aren't prohibitively expensive. We are considering all cuisines and atmospheres, and would actually prefer some more unusual or non-traditional. Everyone is staying in Old Town so we would prefer to not have the guests travel too far, but are definitely willing to consider options outside of Old Town. Thanks!

Have you checked with always-reliable Vermilion? Or Evening Star Cafe (upstairs, and in Del Ray)? Brabo, which just hired chef Harper McClure, is another place you might wish to ask about. It's in the heart of Old Town.

Why don't more restaurants offer senior citizen menu items (or even just call them smaller portions or for the lighter appetite or something similar)? Seniors are often on limited budgets as well. I know some people are happy to take leftovers home for another meal, but that's not always possible (going to theatre, etc).l

You should consider the fixed-price menus offered by so many restaurants, especially those near the theaters.

I hope you're planning to take them out for crabs.... I like Cantler's for atmosphere and the crabs. Also - you could take them to a ball game and feed them there (depending on where you are, you might want to do a minor league game instead of the Nats or O's -very family friendly, very "Americana"), or stop by someplace like Ben's Chili Bowl or the Florida Avenue Grill for a Washington DC experience. And, if you have a grill - do a standard American grill. If you're anywhere near Damascus or Fredricksburg you could stop by the Jimmy Cone of Karl's for cones.

All good ideas, although I think the atmosphere trumps the chow at Ben's Chili Bowl.

Ti Tom, Love your work! Can you please recommend a spot for lunch in Charm city. Anything goes... thanks!

Try Johnny's in Roland Park -- and ease in with some tiny tacos or lamb-stuffed empanadas.

Hank's Oyster Bar Dupont Circle meets all the criteria listed and takes reservations for parties of 6 or more. I take out-of-town visitors there frequently and they all rave about it.

Plus, Hank's has outdoor seating, which equals fun people-watching. Good call (especially if you like seafood).

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. See you again next Wednesday, same time. Thanks for participating.

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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