Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema discusses DC dining

Jul 13, 2011

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.

If you own a new (and pretty good) restaurant in South Arlington, it's probably not best to illegally park your luxury car with vanity plates naming your restaurant in the handicapped spot right in front. People notice these type of things. This just goes back to all the little things that restauranteurs need to think about.

Zing!

 

I had dinner last night with a friend who just dined at an Important New Restaurant ("You should have given them three stars!") and she said the only thing that she didn't like about the place was the night she sat between two tables that were getting special attention from the house -- edible extras, personal appearances by the chef -- while she and her husband went basically ignored by the staff.

 

"People notice these types of things," indeed.

 

Good morning, gang.  Did you read  my colleague Tim Carman's  extensive  piece in today's Food section on America Eats Tavern? Did you hear that R.J. Cooper is finally opening his experimental Rogue 24  July 27? 

 

And did you know that Cedric Maupillier, who opened Central Michel Richard and most recently consulted at Medium Rare, has a new gig?  Restaurateur Saied Azali informs me that he's hired the chef for his forthcoming Mintwood restaurant, located just below his popular Perry's, in Adams Morgan.

 

 "Our paths came together," says Azali. "He was looking for a restaurant and I need a chef"  for the neighborhood American eatery he hopes to open by October, if not before.  "The construction will be finished by the end of July." After that, he plans to redo the kitchen (which will feature a wood grill and smoker) and start training staff. 

 

Funny side story: Maupillier told his new employer that Perry's was the first brunch he experienced in the United States when he came to town six years ago. The occasion?  Sunday drag brunch -- during which a performer stripped him of  his shirt. "My face was red like a tomato," recalls the chef.  But,  he thought, "If that's what they do in this country, I'm going to have a lot of fun."

 

 

So much to chew over. So little time. Let's begin.

Love the postcards! We had a very successful dinner in San Francisco a few years ago based on one of your recommendations. We are traveling to the west coast next week and plan to spend a few days touring wineries in Willamette Valley (Dundee, Dayton, Carlton, or Yamhill areas). I was wondering if you (or the chatters) have any suggestions for restaurants where the food is yummy but where we can still bring our 1-year old?

I've not travelled that path, sad to say. Chatters?

 

My next Postcard from Tom runs this Sunday in Travel, by the way. It's a slightly different way of looking at the food scene in Istanbul.

Hi Tom, I'll be celebrating my birthday soon, and I'm looking for a nice place to have an early dinner with my husband (we'll be hanging out with friends afterwards). Our last date night, we went to Eola and enjoyed it, so I'm looking for something in that same price range. Open to most cuisines except Indian. Your thoughts?

You don't mention a location, but I'm assuming anywhere in DC is good.

 

I had a superb lunch yesterday at the Oval Room, which is a bargain considering its address and chef Tony Conte's skill. If you go, be sure to try his scallop crudo, a fire and ice combination involving cool seafood, creamy avocado and pickled chilies, as well as his beautifully prepared skate and pasta with shaved truffles.

 

The biggest problem I have with D.C. dining is the prevalence of what I call "elf food." Giant plates with miniature food portions set a prices comparable to a weekly grocery budget.

Love the description. Can I borrow it?

 

I'm posting very early because I may be out of town on Wednesday, but ... I've got a friend who's taking a job in Minnesota, and we're planning a farewell party. We're thinking of having a small, stereotypical "Beige Buffet", but I don't know what would be featured, so I'm turning to the master. What would one find in the typical such buffet?

Ha! The poster is referencing my online bio, where I mention I grew up in the Land of 10,000 Lakes eating a beige buffet. (Anyone recall the hotel restaurant scene in  "Fargo?" That's among my youthful food memories.)

 

Incidentally, I spent the past weekend back home. My mom is a terrific cook; she makes her own cakes, pickles, soups -- you name it.  But she wouldn't be a Minnesotan if she hadn't  served at least one "hotdish" while I was visiting.

 

Where I come from, "hotdish" is a covered casserole involving a meat (typically ground), a starch (maybe potatoes or wild rice), a vegetable or two and a can of cream of mushroom soup. The recipe she served fit in lots of roast chicken, wild rice, slivered almonds, cheddar cheese and canned fried onions.  Viola, all the food groups in every bite.

 

Maybe you can serve some variation of that, BB, along with a pan of "bars," as we like to call a sheet of baked sweets, and at least one batch of Jell-O.

Tom -- I read your reviews regularly and normally agree with your 'star rankings'. This Sunday I was very surprised by your FIOLA review -- you seemed to love the food with the exception of one meal that went largely uneaten -- you called the restaurant's design 'beautiful" and yet the headline for the review was pretty negative "no sweetheart of a deal', presumably a reference to the pricing which I view as very fair given the quality of products and preparations I have enjoyed. The result was a respectable though far from exemplary 2.5 stars. Here is my question -- do you think that you are holding Mr. Trabocchi to a different standard because Maestro once enjoyed a four star rating from the Post?

Were consumer expectations high for Fiola? You bet.

 

That said, I don't think I was holding the chef to a different standard as much as I was comparing his intentions (and subsequent execution of those intentions) with the subsequent reality: a high-end restaurant with tabs to match, and service that was great if you were known but less so if you weren't. 

 

I have a lot of respect for the people involved in the project and I look forward to following Fiolas's evolution.

Have you tried Graffiato's pizza yet? I endorse adding it to the mix of top contenders for best DC pizza. I had lunch there Friday, and it was really good. The thin crust was flavorful, chewy, a bit airy even, and not burnt. I had mine topped with prosciutto, ricotta and honey, which was a nice combination.

I thought I'd wait for some of the hype to die down before checking out Graffiato. It's been quite the scene, report friends who've somehow managed to get in at other than 5 or 9 p.m.: Lots of diners wanting their photos taken with Mike Isabella.

Tom - My sister is coming in to DC and she's heard me rave about the dining scene here so I want to take her out for a fantastic meal. She really likes steakhouses but inevitably will end up getting a seafood entree at one. So I have two questions - what steakhouse in DC proper has the best seafood options? Second, if were to just go out to an actual seafood place, what's the best in the district? Thanks!

Regarding your first question, look no further than J & G Steakhouse in the W Hotel. Yes, it's an import from New York, but to my mind, the restaurant feels more personal than that. I love the sweep of the room, the succulence of the lamb chops and the signature halibut crowned with cool celery.

 

The best seafood restaurant in town? It might be a tie among Blacksalt, Oceanaire Seafood Room and Pesce.

Hey Tom: Next time you see Ashok Bajaj, you should mention to him that the city needs a cool vegetarian themed type Bistro in DC. I know he has a lot of vegetarian options at the revamped Ardeo + Bordero (have eaten there a few times) but the city does not have a knockout vegetarian restaurant like you would find out in the San Fran Bay area or in napa like Ubuntu Restaurant.

Paging Mr. Bajaj! Paging Mr. Bajaj! 

 

(Solely) vegetarian restaurants have not had a lot of luck in Washington proper, but if anyone could make a go of one, he'd be a strong candidate.

ate dinner there last week--food & drinks were fantastic, but I was particularly impressed with the waiter, he knew an impressive amount about early American food given that they'd just opened and was enthusiastic to share what he knew. Loved the commitment to the theme, even down to the music.

America Eats Tavern is an important addition to not just the Washington dining scene, but the country's culinary landscape. Funny, isn't it, how it took an outsider to give us a better sense of our great past?

From a fellow Minnesotan...

It, too, has a place in my heart.

yes, totally agree. We had the chef special last night which was a broccoli puree--wonderful. Then again, everything we tried was fantastic, from the sweet corn agnolotti to the bone marrow to the zeppole...

You're making me hungry ...

I went to Jaleo in Bethesda this past Friday night, as I've heard it was the best Spanish tapas place in our area. While the service and sangria were excellent, I wasn't blown away with the food. Were they having an off night or do you think I can find better tapas elsewhere?

Can you provide a few more details? I eat at the Jaleo in DC on a fairly (for me) regular basis and I'm always struck by how fresh the food continues to be, both in terms of quality and ideas.

Another midwestern favorite is a hot dish that consists of winter mix veggies, cream of mushroom soup and velveeta topped with either tater tots or onion rings instead of the fried onions.

Where would the Midwest be without canned soup, tater tots and fried dried onions?

Have a guest in town next weekend and want to impress....what would you suggest for brunch. I have my old standby Old Ebbitt because of it's location but am looking for something more interesting...I'm flexible re: location. Thanks, love your chats!

I guess you didn't catch my update on OEG?

 

Among my picks are Birch & Barley, Tabard Inn, Cashion's Eat Place and The Passenger (which is looking for a chef these days.)

 

Any chatters care to share their favorite weekend spots?

A friend from Iowa once told me his mom claimed, defensively, "I cook with spices!" He asked which ones and she replied, "salt and pepper!" I'm from South Dakota, by the way, so I totally relate!

And let's not forget garlic powder ...

I agree with the poster on Bethesda Jaleo. At best, the cooking is always just a step off the quality at the original DC location (which is my favorite restaurant in DC). At worse, you get dishes like the salt cod, which was very, very off. My wife and I could barely stand to have it on our table, the smell was so fishy.

Hmm. Wonder if some of the inconsistency has to do with a certain addition to the family of restaurants?

At my Grandma's funeral luncheon in North Dakota, the church basement was filled with beige food and lots of "salads" - pasta salad, jello salad, potato salad, etc. I noticed one dish covered in nilla wafers and asked the nice lady what it was - and she said "cookie salad" Uff da! BTW - it was delicious.

"Cookie salad." Love it.

 

That hotdish I mentioned above was one that my family received when my dad died four summers ago this month. So I appreciate it for more than the almonds and the wild rice.

Tom, best Thai in DC (just the city)? I've heard people rave about Thai Xing (or Crossing), but am put off a little by the 'we'll let you know when we can fit you in' approach they have.

I'm not sure if I have a "best" or favorite in the city proper right now. But I love Ruan Thai in Wheaton and the newish Kao Thai in Silver Spring, which is half of my forthcoming Sunday review.

BLT Steak or Bourbon Steak? Both of us likely will be eating steak (the person with the birthday most certainly will).

BLT Steak is deafening. For that and other reasons, I cast my vote for the restaurant in G'town.

I'm heading out to dinner in DC proper with a girlfriend next Friday night. If you were getting dressed up for a fun night on the town with one of your friends, what restaurants would be top on your list? Something on the new(ish) side would be preferred, other than Estadio because I've been there recently. Thanks!

Start with cocktails and pork cupcakes -- I kid you not -- at Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, then move on to America Eats Tavern (I have a feeling I'm going to be typing those words a lot for awhile), the expanded Palena Cafe  or Ripple. The last ones are both in Cleveland Park; Logan Cox is the new chef at Ripple.

As I live in Bethesda and work in PQ, I have to say that the dishes I usually order are about the same in both, although my tastes are pretty staid and I've been ordering the same thing at both restaurant for almost ten years - but I couldn't tell the difference in a taste test. The one thing I can categorically tell the difference with is the quality of the sangria. The PQ sangria is noticeably less potent, much sweeter and its construction is haphazard. And, if you manage to go in there on a night when there is something going on at the Verizon center - don't bother at all with the Sangria - you are practically drinking fruit punch. It at PQ Jaleo twice a month or so and everyone always wants to order sangria and it is invariably horrible. Bethesda Row Sangria is consistently worth of the name.

In-ter-es-ting.

Google "Culture of Minnesota" and you will be led to a Wikipedia article that speaks to various Scandanavian influences, as well as "food on a stick" featured at fairs.

Right after we finish here, I'm there (well, make that after the Food section chat, coming up next).

It's not just a midwestern thing because I grew up knowing nothing but salt, pepper, and garlic powder and my parents were from Pennsylvania and Maine. It may be an ethnic thing because we're a blend of German, Scottish, and English - three cultures not known for their fabulous cuisine.

Ah, but I love German cooking. Maybe I've been spoiled, though, having lived there.

If there is inconsistency (I work in the area and tend to agree), it isn't the only result of having a dining empire that spreads resources so thin. While the food at Zaytinya is still great, the entire place is run down. The bathrooms are gross...not well attended, stale and falling apart (I'm looking at you rotting wood around the sinks). While the prices are the same, it just makes me feel like Andres doesn't care about keeping up the existing restaurants, but rather just starting something new and letting the rest languish. And FWIW, I am a huge fan - a meal last year at Bazaar is probably my favorite dining experience ever.

The chef, the restaurant group overall, is juggling a lot of balls right now. Thanks for the field report. Haven't been to Zaytinya in awhile.

This is something I've always wondered about. As a restaurant critic, I know that you take great pains to protect your anonymity when dining out. Yet whenever I read your articles, I notice how you often include quotes from various chefs and/or owners that read as if they were part of a conversation with them. My question is how are you able to interact with them in such a way that prevents them from figuring out who you are the next time you visit their establishment? Do you do everything by e-mail?

Not a stupid question at all. Generally, after I've written my review, I ring up the chef to fact-check details. That's when I get those quotes.  I very rarely interact with the chef of a restaurant I'm in the process of reviewing.

Hi Tom - not a question, but a commendation. I was meeting a friend at Bibiana for lunch the other day, and my pal was driving in from an outer suburb. She hit unexpected traffic (unsurprisingly!) and then couldn't find parking once downtown. I meanwhile sat at a table in Bibiana awaiting her, and 30 minutes after our intial reservation time, she finally made it to the resaurant. The Bibiana staff were terrific about the delay. I apologized profusely for mucking up the elaborate reservations dance restaruants have to go through by 1) being only half of my party, and 2) not even ordering until a good half-hour after our set arrival time, They could not have been more gracious and understanding. Granted we then sat and ate and drank for about 2 hours, ordering several courses plus wine, but still, many restaurants would NOT have been so welcoming for such a disruption to a busy lunch service. So kudos to Bibiana!

Nice to hear that about one of my favorite date night destinations (partly because Bibiana is close to where we live and partly because chef Nicholas Stefanelli deserves a shout out). My favorite place to sit there  is the bar, where we can see into the kitchen (and the kitchen can spy on us).

 

One of my restaurant pet peeves is not being able to be seated until everyone is present and accounted for, although I sympathize with restaurants that have to deal with parties whose members dribble in over the course of an evening rather than show up in a timely fashion.

In Sunday's paper, you again mentioned Patrick O'Connell as one of very few truly outstanding chefs in the region. For the past 25 years, we have celebrated various milestone events with dinner at the Inn, but our visit last fall was our last visit! The amuse bouche offerings have been the same for about five years, and the regular menu seems little changed from the first time we visited. And, while we were fully aware that we would be paying top dollar for every bite and sip, we were amazed that a wine we had enjoyed the previous evening at Juleps in Richmond (where we spent close to $500 for 4), was $100 more a bottle at the Inn. It appears to us that the chef has grown complacent. The wait staff seem far less polished than in prior years. We had decided that we would order breakfast a la carte, but no one asked us if we would be having the complimentary breakfast or something else. When a waitress came by to ask "what jams and jellies would you enjoy . . ," I said that we would be ordering breakfast, she simply repeated "what jams and jellies would you enjoy" with absolutely no recognition of the fact that I had spoken! Someone else eventually took our order. All of the a la carte breakfasts are $25 -- for that I was served the tiniest (albeit perfectly prepared) Eggs Benedict with nothing else on the plate. Finally, a word on the accommodations. We received a complimentary upgrade to the Alice Waters suite. Even though we are in our mid-60s, judging from the age of our fellow diners, I'm guessing that they thought that we might be the only ones capable of making the fairly tortous climb to the 3rd floor! In the main room, there were two chairs and a plstform sofa. Only one of the chairs was comfortable and it was impossible to either sit or recline on the sofa with ease. I noticed that the stuffing was coming out of one of the decorative pillows, and since I knew that the staff would be in to freshed the room while we were at dinner, I turned the torn side out so that it would be clearly visible, rusting that it would be whisked away to be repaired. But no, whe we returned, they had merely turned the defective side to the wall. In the bathroom, a glass door separated the toilet from the rest of room. The space inside the door is unheated and the "throne" was very cold, so I left the door opened. Of course, that had been closed while we were at dinner. And the final straw was the pink slimy mold growing in the lower shower tiles. My husband and I are agreed that we have made our last trip to the Inn.

Oh my!  Given the reputation and the cost of room and board at the Inn at Little Washington, you certainly deserve better. Did you bring your disappointment to anyone's attention while you were there?

 

I've not overnighted at the Inn, but I agree with you about the sameness of what used to be surprises in the restaurant.

I ate at the Crystal City one the other night and I think you are on to something Tom. Maybe Andres needs to check his other restaurants. My two tapas I had were too salty. I did not complain as it was at closing time. But it has definitely gone down.

Two is a trend (or a problem, in this case).

Bistro Maison in McMinnville is a great little French place, and it's like eating in someone's home. Perfect place to combine food, wine, and a one-year-old.

Reader to the rescue! Thanks.

My favorite brunch place was Oyamel. Very unique - it always impressed my guests.

The Mexican restaurant (again by Jose Andres) is another good choice.

Do you have any idea if America Eats or some other Jose Andres establishment serves the same mojito they served at Cafe Atlantico? Better yet, do you have any idea where Owen Thomson (Cafe Atlantico head bartender) will be working now that C.A. is gone?

Running out of time here, but Todd Thrasher, once of Cafe Atlantico and now of Restaurant Eve (and other Old Town hot spots) is a master mojito maker.

 

Folks, thanks for joining me this morning. Let's meet again next Wednesday, same time. Chow for now.

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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 moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. His new video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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