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

Jun 29, 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.

THE STARS ARE ALIGNING: The Four Seasons has beckoned Michael Mina yet again, only this time, the luxury hotel wants recipes from the San Francisco chef for Baltimore instead of Washington, home to Mina’s Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons in Georgetown.

The “nice brand,” as the chef calls his partner, is opening a 256-room hotel in Harbor East November 1. Mina is helping stock the waterfront venue with three places to eat.  They include a breakfast and lunch outpost, Lamill, in partnership with the pedigreed Los Angeles-based coffee roaster of the same name; Wit & Wisdom, a 110-seat “modern tavern” celebrating food from the Mid-Atlantic; and Pabu, an 80-seat Japanese-style izakaya, or pub.  The last concept is inspired by Hana restaurant in Rohnert Park, California, a hangout for some of San Francisco’s top chefs headed by chef Ken Tominaga .

A look at the draft menus finds lobster corn dogs, oak-roasted sweetbreads, bison tenderloin and crab imperial at Wit & Wisdom. The restaurant will greet visitors with a dramatic flourish, in the form of an epic live fire up front. "Envision a Dante's inferno of chefs stoking wood fires in ovens, grills, rotisserie," says David Varley, Mina's corporate chef (who left Bourbon Steak in Washington to take the West Coast promotion).

Live scallops, a surf and turf roll, tempura crab and grilled duck with yuzu pickled peaches are among the dishes planned for Pabu, which will be headed by three of Tominaga's chefs from Hana and open after the other restaurants in February 2012. Mina has yet to tap a chef for Wit & Wisdom but says two of his three candidates are from the District.

Let the guessing commence.

Good morning, chatters.

A house-keeping note: I won't be hosting a chat July 6, but I'll be back to chew over pressing food matters July 13.  For now, bring on your rants, your raves, your restaurant questions. I'm all eyes.

Soooo...I am a restaurant manager in DC. I read your chats every week and there is one topic that seems to come up pretty frequently...kids in restaurants that exhibit poor behavior and the parents that can't (won't) attempt to control them. I am a parent myself so it's extremely difficult for me to watch parents sit around and watch their kids run around the restaurant, scream, cry and generally become a nuisance. I don't blame the child in these instances...I place it fully on the parents for being blissfully ignorant about their own circumstances. I finally came up with a good line last weekend that seemed to work and I wanted to share it with any other restaurant managers that are in the awkward position of dealing with parents of children that are disturbing others. This particular couple had a screaming child (for the majority of their time with us) and were just eating their meal as slowly as one would if you were on a first date. They weren't trying to eat faster or pack up their food to go or anything like most of us would in that situation. Tables around them were giving me "the look" and we had multiple tables complain or move as a result of this family. I simply walked up to the table and said to the parents, "Is there anything I can bring, buy or do for you to make tonight easier to handle for your family as well as the rest of our guests? There is a drugstore down the street and I'm happy to pick up a coloring book or something if you think it would help." They declined the offer but it seemed to make them realize what a bother their child was to other people. They wrapped up their meal quickly and apologized on the way out. I think parents like this are just generally unaware how disrupting their child is being to others and a gentle reminder can remedy the situation for everyone. I had two tables pull me aside to thank me afterwards!

What a helpful/tactful/honest/brilliant solution to a tricky problem!  Thanks for sharing it with us.

 

Curious to know of  any restaurants that stock kid-oriented amusements to keep little diners in check? 

i have been eating at the "daily grill" for years and was never let down (my only complaint is that their portions are huge and not exactly fit for weight watchers). is it indeed a great restaurant or i'm just biased ?

I don't think it's a great place to eat, but you know what? You like it and that's really what matters most.

What is your rule of thumb for rereviewing a restaurant? If a new chef comes in? if a certain amount of time passes?

 If there's been a substantial change (in the concept or cooking talent), I tend to  go back and write about it.  To be fair, I try not to write about the same place twice in a year, unless it's in the form of a round-up or part of one of my two annual food guides.

 

My primary vehicle for re-reviews has become the spring guide, but I also flag new developments in the Sunday Magazine.  On July 24, for instance, I'm looking anew at Ripple, which I previously featured in my First Bite column.  The wine-themed restaurant has a new chef, Logan Cox, who moved over from New Heights

I need to find a good place for carry out or delivery pizza. I don't want gourmet, or a restaurant experience, just a pizza shop, hopefully one that also sells subs too. i'm willing to drive a little pick it up if necessary, but not to the otherside of town. PS: i didn't like the crust at we the pizza

Can anyone help out a fellow chatter with his search?

I know that you've covered New Orleans restaurants before, but I'm having some trouble locating a postcard or chat archives that reference your suggestions. I'm planning a large business meeting (150+ attendees) there in September and would love to provide our guests with a list of the must-visit restaurants. Your suggestions are always spot-on. Thanks!

I appreciate the kind words. Four of my favorite places to eat (and drink!) in New Oreleans were featured in my May 15th Travel section feature.

Good morning Tom. Have you given Cathal Armstrong's latest venture a shot yet? If so, any thoughts?

I 've been. My preview of Virtue Feed & Grain runs next Wednesday in the Food section. 

 

Early thoughts:  Upstairs is more fun than downstairs and you'd better like meat.

Should I tip when picking up a take-out order? And if so, how much?

I always tip for take-out and the amount typically depends on the size and cost of my order.  For carry-out that costs, say, $20, I'd probably thank the server/bar tender/hostess with a couple of bucks.

 

In anticipation of those chatters who are apt to disagree with me on this matter, let me just say that I like to reward whoever has taken the time to jot down my request, make sure it's correct, throw in the proper utensils and so forth.

Hi Tom - what is the name of the resauant that replaced Il Mulino? Thansk!

The fancy Italian import from New York was replaced by the subject of my forthcoming restaurant:  Lincoln, from the owner of Hudson in the West End.

Depending on where you are in Shaw (and/or who answers the phone), Pete's Apizza delivers. They also have panini. But if you want subs, call Taylor Gourmet, which also delivers. And for when you want to dine in and have something a bit nicer, stroll over to Rustik!

Bravo!

That restaurant manager had a great idea. There seem to be plenty of restaurants that provided things like placemats with puzzles and pictures to color, and accompanying crayons. But you know, parents could bring these types of things, too.

Smart ones do.

I went to Clyde's at Gallery Place for a business lunch last week. (Feel free to redact the name if you want.) The food was fine, the service was fine, but oh my gosh were the chairs the most uncomfortable I think I've ever sat in. I thought it was just me, but talking about the meal afterwards with my colleagues, they all said the same thing. Just butt-numbing, literally. I've sat on more comfortable logs. Obviously there was nothing they could do, our party was too big for a booth, but do you think they know? And why would they buy such horrible chairs?

I always say, restaurateurs should test-drive every aspect of their businesses before making major decisions -- including the kind of seats they buy. In the case of chairs, they should be scrutinized (sat in) for at least an hour.

 

Few restaurants will intentionally buy uncomfortable seats, and I'm certain Clyde's didn't intend to do so, but poor chairs discourage lingering.  

Tom: Wanted to thank you for your tweet on the stay-at-home employment opportunities. It seemed a little out of the blue (and I'm not so sure why you were so upset with your bosses and coworkers) but it ended up being a good opportunity for me.

Ha! The poster is referring to a couple rogue tweets that went out under my name earlier this week. I got hacked, unfortunately.

Once again, you suggested Rasika to a chatter last week. I understand why, as I was one of the "anything but Indian" crowd prior to a business lunch that I HAD to attend last year, and I absolutely loved it. However, you are doing your readers a disservice by frequently recommending it, as I have tried on at least ten occasions in the past year to take my wife for dinner on a Friday or Saturday night, but to no avail. Everytime I've tried to make a reservation--even more than a month out--I've been unsuccessful. It's easier to book a table for two at Citronelle or Komi. Seriously. At this rate, I have a better shot at getting an audience with the Pope on a weekend.

I'm not sure how I can fix your problem other than to suggest that you and the Mrs. meet for a lunch date, do a dinner on the (really) early side or sup at the bar at one of the most memorable restaurants around.

I'm a little behind on reading the paper and rarely open the Magazine since the redesign a while back. I just picked up the June 19 issue, though, to catch up on your reviews. I'm still reeling from the sidebar that day, with the inquiry from Howard Stelzer on where to spend $300 per person for 50 people for dinner. $300 per person. For dinner. I wonder what the Capital Area Food Bank could do for $300 per person? In Minot, I'm sure $300 a person would buy a lot of sand bags. Or a lot of plywood as Joplin rebuilds from the tornado. The emergency shelters outside both those cities might be able to put $300 per person to good use. You could ask a Wisconsin public school teacher what she would do with $300 per student while the media focused on her collective bargaining rights, the governor gutted the school budget. $300 per person. For dinner. I'm happy that Mr. Stelzer's client is doing well in this economy. I hope the people who clean the client's office at night are faring just as well.

As I recall, the poster was actually tasked by a relative to find a setting suitable for a major business event scheduled for later this year. 

 

Three hundred dollars a person is a lot of money, I agree, and times are tough all over, but think about the good all those visitors will be doing for the local economy by staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants, riding in our taxis and  visiting our attractions. 

My 12 yr old grand nephew loves ribs and is visiting us in VA. Can you recommend a good rib restaurant in No. VA. or DC? thanks.

I'm a big fan of the (pork) ribs at the sprawling Hill Country Barbecue Market, which I reviewed last Sunday. It has the advantage of being close to the Mall.

Tom, I was disappointed to read your praise of Hill Country. On my multiple visits, all I could taste was smoke, salt and un-rendered fat instead of flavorful meat. The only thing that would be worth a second visit is the chicken, which isn't a decent portion for how expensive the place is on a whole. And I hate to spoil you love for the baked beans, but I live in the neighborhood and early one morning saw a Sysco truck unloading industrial-sized cans of Bush's baked beans. Usually, I hold your reviews in esteem, but I'm pretty bummed about this one.

Did you try the pork ribs? I thought they were terrific. As for the baked beans, I'm certain Hill Country adds its own meat trimmings to the side dish.

You've got 15 minutes of the undivided attention of the waitstaff of Washington's restaurants. Based on your extensive experience dining out and observing, what three (or two, or four, or five) critical things would you tell them about restaurant service that you've often found lacking in your travels?

Fantasy time!

 

In no particular order and off the top of my head:

 

1) If you don't know the answer to a question, don't make one up. 

 

2) Take the time to learn something about your work environment. I was admiring the quilts dressing the walls of a new restaurant lately, and asked a waitress where they were from. "Gosh, a lot of people ask me that question," she replied. "I don't know."  She then walked away.

 

3) Treat everyone as if they were investors. Acknowledge everyone at the table, not just the presumed host. Note to chefs:  Take time to chat up other than the VIPS in your dining room.  Customers notice when they're ignored.

 

4) Take those paper kitchen tickets off my food before you set it down (or better yet, before I notice them).

 

 5) Don't hover. Learn to "read" a table so as not to interrupt a good joke or story.  

 

Chatters, care to contribute to the list?

Fourth time is the charm? For the record, I did see your Portland, ME postcard but it's a bit old. I'm looking for dining options from Boston to Bar Harbor, especially a fantastic birthday dinner locale in Boston. Could you or the chatters help? thanks Tom!

Chatters? (Typically, if I don't have a ready answer for a question, I tend not to address it. Just fyi.)

WRITE IT DOWN... I don't care if you've been in this business for 25 years and have the best memory on the planet. Please write my order down on a piece of paper. No one is impressed that you don't have to write down and are going by memory, but everyone is worried they'll be fixing the mistakes when my food comes. I had this happen twice at a tapas type of place (not Jaleo!) and each time they missed two items from my group's order.

Great addition. I've seen waiters memorize orders for parties of four before and get every detail right, but those talents are in the minority.

Hi Tom, How would you rank the following Italian restaurants based on their quality right now: Bibiana, Casa Nonna, Fiola, Galileo III, Potenza, and Tosca? (Leaving out Graffiato since it is so new.) Thanks!

Hmm. They are different restaurants with different ambitions. But in order of personal preference (where I'd spend my own money/comfort factor/etc.), I'd probably rank them with Bibiana on the top and Potenza on the bottom.  Guess where the others fall?

Adding to your list: Give me chilled tap water, without asking, the moment I sit down, and make sure it gets refilled during my meal. Don't try to sell me bottled water -- I'll ask for it if I want it. Don't make me feel cheap for saying "just water." Don't make me grovel during the meal, trying to flag you down, to get some more water.

I sympathize, but every now and then, I do get a craving for sparkling water and like to be asked.

Here's two out of many 1) Beer choices. Please do not be bothered by my asking what type of beer you have.Even better, actually know what you have and something about them. Like you do with your wine choices. A list would be nice 2) Once we say no to dessert or coffee or whatever the final food item being offered, it's time for the check. If for some reason that is not apparent, politely ask "Would you like me to bring the check now?" Don't make us find you to get the check.

Tardy checks: Hate 'em!

The previous poster should try a reservation on Open Table. It will give you available times for weeks in advance.I just booked a Friday night in August there for 6:30. A little earlier than I would have liked but still reasonable. (And, no, I'm not affliated with Open Table.)

I like that about Open Table, too.

Even if you're swamped, a quick glance around at your tables as you rush by will enable customers to get your attention. A quick "I'll be right with you" works wonders -- AS LONG AS you actually do come back to them quickly. Nothing annoys patrons more than seeing you go by their table with eyes averted.

 Most recent example of that for me was at the new Senart's on the Hill. There were at least four staff  (including hostesses) near my table the whole night and all of them did an impressive job of not seeing what needed to be done.

That whole post read a little oddly. First, you scarcely ever read the Post magazine, (since a redesign that seems to have somehow offended you) so how are you going to "catch up" on Tom's work by reading one issue? Secondly, even I, an old school Lyndon Johnson style liberal, find this line of denunciation tiresome. The list of where the $300 per person for an event could be better spent is endless--it could help eradicate malaria in Africa, buy timberland in the Amazon to prevent deforestation, or be given to HIV/AIDS shelters in India. If I thought the poster had sent his/her own $300 to Minot, I would feel more confident that this was little more than tut tutting jealousy.

That thougt crossed my mind as well ...

Please do not wear cologne or perfume, especially to cover up BO!

 And if you step out for a smoke, please brush your teeth or gargle before you return to the dining room.

In response, professional servers/bartenders are not order takers. They are sales people. If they are not offering bottled water, just as if they are not offering specials or desserts, they are not only doing their restaurant a disservice, but they are doing you, the diner, a disservice by not offering something that would enhance your experience at that restaurant. A good sales person is not merely concerned with the check average. A good check average comes with doing the best job you can do for your customers and helping them fully enjoy their experience

So glad you chimed in. Right you are. I'm inclined to tip more generously when a server has steered me to a dish or wine that's less expensive than what I was considering in the first place.

I hope people can be a little more generous with the server on this one. I dread asking the question to my tables, but I have no choice!!! People get snippy with me, but they really should revolt against management - who require us to ask the question. Like I say, I cringe when I ask it, and several times a week I get snippy responses like If-I-wanted-it-I-would-ask-for-it or I-didn't-come-here-to-get-upsold-young-lady. I have no choice!

Always love to hear from folks in the industry. Much obliged, Young Lady.

I saw the GOG on the gator ribs at Thunder burger. What is the wildest meat you have ever eaten?

The poster is referring to my blog post on the new Wild Wednesday promotion at the Georgetown eatery.

 

 Wildest meat? A toss-up between lion and bear (neither very appealling, by the way).

""Is there anything I can bring, buy or do for you to make tonight easier to handle for your family as well as the rest of our guests? There is a drugstore down the street and I'm happy to pick up a coloring book or something if you think it would help." Why so passive aggressive? Why not be direct? "Your kid is destroying the evening for everyone here - keep him quiet or leave as soon as possible."

Um, I vote for passive-aggressive in this scenario.

Don't auction off the food when you serve it. Take a memory course if necessary so you can recall who ordered what.

Yep. Another good bit of advice.

Tom, just curious as to your thoughts on the awards this year. For myself I found some of the choices.... uninspiring. Best bar scene goes to a place in Tysons, a New York chain takes home 2 awards, and is Todd Gray really the best chef this city has to offer for this year? I'm sure people will take issue with the last statement, but I don't really think that Watershed is that amazing and Equinox is good...but not great. If the idea is the best chef in DC I would think that Vikram Sunderam or Bryan Voltaggio would be far more deserving.

  I'm scratching my head, too.

 

 Keep in  mind that some of the Rammy awards you mention were selected by the general public.  I really have to question the taste of the masses, however, when they're applauding a New York import as a power spot and a middling restaurant in Tysons Corners as a hot bar scene. 

 

As for the Chef of the Year award, if Todd Gray had received such recognition a decade ago, or with different competition, I could understand. In the company of a Chemel (2941) or a Sunderam (Rasika) -- one of the best Indian chefs in the country --  the win is more debatable.  Perhaps the judges were acknowledging his years of mentoring young chefs and the unfortunate fire at Equinox?   

 

I hear a lunch bell ringing, gang. Thanks for a lively hour.  Remember, I'm away next Wednesday but I'll be back here July 13, same time.

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 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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