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

Jul 10, 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.

Tom, I hope you had a fun 4th with lots of corn on the cob, tomatoes, slaw, and grilled classics. I went to Casa Luca today. Fiola is one of my favorite spots and "the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree" in the case of Casa Luca! Great service, attractive, comfortable, dining room and great food. We tried a few things, Fritto Misto, the savory crepes (with a beef broth), and the hazelnut cake and Cannoli (it the interest of research) for dessert. Everything was excellent. Team Trabocchi has a great formula. I cannot wait to try their next project. Any word when it will open? Tom, thanks!

Fabio Trabocchi tells me he's now shooting for Dec. 7 for the roll-out of Fiola Mare, his seafood-themed restaurant in Georgetown. "But that's not 100 percent" sure, he cautions.

 

Some hopeful news: construction on his third concept starts this week. Possible cause for more delay: crews have a limited amount of time per day -- between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. -- to drill and do other noisy but necessary work in the neighborhood, says the chef.  Even so, he hopes to be open no later than "the end of the year."

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for an hour of food chat today. Let's begin.

Tom, I am a big fan or your reviews and chats, while I dont always agree generally speaking you seem fair. My question slash comment is about noise, isnt it incumbent upon me as the diner to pick a quiet restaurant if thats what I want? Why do people complain about the noise at Le Diplomate, NoPa, Jaleo and others? They are meant to be loud restaurants, if you want quiet then go to a quiet restaurant. There are plenty of both, I dont go to church looking for an easy woman and more than I go to Equinox looking for an energetic atmosphere. Restaurants should be as welcoming as possible but we as diners should be as realistic as possible.

I disagree with you when you say there are plenty of quiet places to eat. I'm hard-pressed to come up with an example of a trusty source that isn't a luxury venue.

 

Can anyone in the audience name a restaurant that's both good (or better) and doesn't require patrons to read lips at prime time? I'm happy to start a list.

Hi Tom, I'm headed back to DC after serving in a challenging - but rewarding - Middle East post. I want to take my partner out for a romantic dinner to celebrate and thank him for his support. We're partial to French, Japanese, Mediterranean, and American. I'd like some place that isn't exorbitantly priced and won't take months to get a reservation.(Before I left we had a exceptional lunch at Zaytinya, if that gives you some barometer.) The District, NOVA, or Maryland are all fine. Thanks, I'm looking forward to getting home!

Here's wishing you a safe journey home and a delicious reunion.

 

For French, I'd try Montmartre on the Hill or Et Voila! in the Palisades (both easier to get in than the new Le Diplomate). For Japanese, the serene Izakaya Seki near U St. NW would be my No. 1 choice.  As for American, try the Blue Duck Tavern in the West End or Vermilion in Old Town.

Tom: I want to treat my mom to a birthday dinner at Volt--is it still a recommended restaurant, and if so, what items should we definitely not miss? Thanks.

The menu at Frederick's top dining draw has undoubtedly changed since my visit there last fall; my chief criticism then was too many foams and deconstructed dishes. But I very much enjoyed the cocktails, the service and the chef's imaginative way with seasonal ingredients. I look forward to eating there again.

Tom, just a few comments about the new MXDC. I was hesitant because my past experiences with Todd English restaurants have all been negative. We went there last night and from the moment we got there, I was very impressed with the staff and service. We learned, very shortly before we ate, that the restaurant is not exactly wheelchair accessible. However, the manager was incredibly accommodating and escorted us to our table through the kitchen. Our waiter Stephen was one of the best waiters I have had in a while. He was so engaging and clearly happy to be working at the restaurant (or if he was not, he was a darn fine actor!). The food was a bit spotty. My gazpacho was so over salted I could not eat it (reminiscent of my last meal at Olives, which was much like eating a bowl of salt straight up). I told the waiter, since he mentioned they were still working the kinks out with the menu. The waiter and manager immediately apologized and took the soup off the bill, which was completely unnecessary. I ordered it, I was happy to pay for it. Later, the chef sent out a complimentary dessert to "balance out the salty dinner with something sweet." Again, completely unnecessary. I mentioned the salt issue only to help the restaurant improve since it so new, but it was a thoughtful gesture that we appreciated! The other food we had was very good, the tomato salad was excellent and I think I would return for the churros, probably every night if I could. Still a few kinks to work out, but overall, a good experience.

Your field report from the city's latest Mexican restaurant reminds me that food isn't everything in a restaurant, that service and a sense of hospitality go a long way in making up for culinary slips.

Hi Tom! We are expecting twins near the end of the year. Knowing this will limit our ability to get out and enjoy the local dining scene what would you recommend putting on our must try list? We would like a mix of fine dining, date night and casual spots. We will be celebrating a first anniversary and two birthdays during this time. Thanks!!!

Twins! Fun!

 

Here's a delicious game plan:

 

Fine dining:  Fiola for Italian or the bistro at Restaurant Eve in Old Town.

Date night: The oh-so-French Le Diplomate in Logan Circle or Old Angler's Inn in Potomac.

Casual:  Daikaya, the fun and funky Japanese tavern across from the Verizon Center or Etto, the new pizza and small plates oasis from the owners of Two Amys and Garden District (previously Standard).

Palena Cafe, on its website says its "casual, family-friendly atmosphere." Well, my family had a reservation for 630 on Saturday night, but since we have a toddler, we had to leave because they don't actually have high chairs. I assume I'll be pilloried by those who think that children should be dining there, it was too late for them, etc. But at the very least, can we agree that if you don't have high chairs, you probably should find a description other than "family friendly?"

Like  "nice-casual" (as it refers to dress codes), "family friendly" is open to broad interpretation. Anyone with special needs should contact a restaurant ahead of a visit and verify that the establishment can provide them with what they need. 

 

The lesson here: Never assume.

Hi Tom, My parents are going to the Jazz club in Bethesda Saturday night for an 8 pm show. I'd like to treat them to dinner before hand, say 6-6:30 reservation close by. What would you recommend? The theater is on Wisconsin Ave. Thanks!!

Mom and dad should ease into the night with a meal at the refreshed Food Wine & Co., conveniently located at 7272 Wisconsin Ave.  The menu is a welcome mix of crowd-pleasers (deviled eggs, steak) and more adventurous dishes (carrot-coconut soup, poached octopus with broccoli rabe).

Tom, Recently revisited table in shaw, what's with the giant mural of chef de pue ? Pretentious ? Any thoughts on these types of displays ?

Is that new? If so, how did I miss it?

Tom, I just moved back to the DC area after 8 years away. I've been following your chats the whole time and know exactly where I want to start eating! However, I'm planning some large (~20 people) happy hours to reconnect with old colleagues, but I have no idea where to go. It needs to be casual (where people can come and go) and centrally located since people will be coming in from who knows where. Thanks!

I can think of a lot of watering holes that might be able to accomodate your thirsty bunch: Jaleo in Penn Quarter, Daikaya in Chinatown, Pearl Dive Oyster Bar in Logan Circle,  Ambar or Beuchert's Saloon on the Hill, Urbana or Mourayo in Dupont Circle.

 

That help?

Please advise good choice restaurant for pre "Book of Mormon". No picky eaters. Moderate price range for four people.

In the West End, just a short taxi ride from the performance center, I like both Bayou for its po' boys and (savory) crawfish cheesecake and Westend Bistro for a lot of things, including its newish Bistro Light menu that I described in today's  Food section.  Another option is the lounge at Rasika West End for Indian fare.

Tom, I just wanted to share with you that my wife and I had dinner at Bibiana a few weeks ago. We dined for our 10th wedding anniversary and we can’t stop thinking about how wonderful the meal was. When we sat down the manager brought us each a glass of Prosecco and welcomed us. He told us that if we preferred he would be happy to have the chef cook for us off the menu. At first, I was a little skeptical because my wife is such a picky eater but he assured us that the chef would avoid things she didn’t eat. The food, and service were both amazing and they made us feel like we were the only diners in the restaurant.

Take a bow, Bibiana.  Nice touches, the gratis bubbly and the offer to have the chef whip up something special.

 

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I find that often places I've visited on weekdays that seem quiet are quite different on the weekend when I'd like to go out on a date. Often places seem to bring in different music plus they are more crowded and the combination makes it impossible to hear. Also during busy times like weekends many places seem to pump up the volume on their sound systems by a LOT. So sometimes even if I choose a place I thought was going to be quiet enough to have a conversation it is impossible in reality.

It's rather sad to think one has to eat before 6 p.m. to be heard in a restaurant, right?

Is there anywhere in the area to get a good Indonesian Rijstafel? My last one was in Amsterdam a long time ago. It's time for more!

I love that spice-fragrant spread of small dishes, too, but I haven't encountered one in the DC area that's worth telling readers about.  What am I missing, gang?   (Among my top food memories from abroad is the long-ago dinner I had at Tempo Doelou in Amsterdam, where the meal got progressively hotter -- and more compelling.)

Because I make it a rule not to get upset if I don't have to, and because I find that if I simply know what's what and can work around it, I won't get upset, I'd like to find out from the wait staff and chefs in your audience. As a LONG time vegetarian (more than 30 years), it doesn't take much meat accidentally ingested for me to get very sick. So when I encounter what seems to be carelessness, I worry. More times than I'd have expected, I'll note that I'm a vegetarian as I ask about particular menu options, and be given some ideas about meatless entrees, for example. That's great. Then, the salad will appear with ham slices. Or the side with the entree will be sprinkled with bacon. Again, I don't get upset when there's a practical option--send it back--but I do get confused. And that's when the worry starts. My question--do restaurants most often remake the dish, or do they more often than I'd like to think simply take off the meat items? The latter must happen sometimes. Servers and chefs, what's been your experience on the front lines?

I'll throw the question out to the industry insiders. Can anyone with restaurant experience weigh in?

Tom, I've been eating in all kinds of restaurants for years and I've never encountered anything like what I'm about to relate. I'm totally flummoxed about what to do. I have a couple of go-to favorite restaurants that I alternate between. At one, I've had a server the last two visits who won't stop touching me or the people in my party. He's a shoulder squeezer, and I know it's not just our table since I've watched him do it to everyone else in his section. I'm stuck because there's just no non-awkward way of saying "stop touching us" to him or the management. I've left notes about this on my opentable reviews since that's the only way I can deal with it in a subtle way. If its useful information, I'm young (33), the server is young, but I've had people of all ages with me who've been similarly manhandled by him and no one knows what to do about it. Please advise?

I'd identify a manager, get his or her business card, call him or her and share your (dare I say it?) touching tale.  They should be made aware of the problem if they aren't already.

 

Sounds as if the issue is serious enough to make you want to dine elsewhere, which is definitely something a higher-up at the restaurant would want to know (and prevent).

I'd be pretty steamed if I paid 20 euro for a microwaved zapped 'lean cuisine' at a Paris eatery. Is this happening in DC? I certainly expect chain to do this. But I don't want to pay $40 in an Old Town place for frozen. How can one be sure it's not frozen?

You mean, aside from checking the dumpsters in the back of any restaurant you suspect might be serving diners factory-made dishes? 

 

The poster is referencing today's front pager on the rise in the number of restaurants in France that aren't doing mch of their own cooking anymore.

I have a reservation tomorrow night. I don't recall if you have written about them. Have you eaten there?

Been there, done that (and here's hoping you booked  with a gaggle of friends, which is the preferred way to eat at the one-table operation).

Um, because the food at Le D, NoPa, Jaleo, etc. is terrific and they want to be able to enjoy it without having their hearing damaged as if they were at a rock concert?

Uh huh (although I don't agree with the adjective "terrific" as it describes one of those restaurants).

Vidalia at lunch certainly qualifies as quiet yet not at a luxury price point.

Yep, with a reading of 73 decibels (normal conversation is about 60 decibels) the southern charmer qualifies as relatively peaceful.

Tom: It feels like you and half of Washington are being swept away by hype. The food at Le Diplomate is unmemorable and the decor no more compelling -- though on a larger scale -- than a Paine Quotidian's. It's a competently run chain restaurant that's being greeted an enthusiasm that suggests most observers also think the Emperor is well-dressed. Another aspect of DC's sad gratitude every time a culinary rock Starr deigns to favor us with a spin-off from his growing empire? Didn't that Ripert guy get a similar reception a few years back?

First, what specifically didn't you like about the cooking?

 

Second, Le Diplomate is hardly a chain. The newcomer has some of the best-trained staff in town right now.

 

Third, I was all set not to like the place as much as I did. But from Day 1,  the restaurant delivered on all fronts: food, service, decor.

The response of the chief who said that chiefs had to use lots of salt in fried/fatty foods "to bring out the flavor" is a crock. I've never been much of a salt lover and I cut back even more when my father was diagnosed as a salt-sensitive hypertensive. I've found that you can taste the sweetness of your corn, the juicyness of your chicken, etc. better without salt. Eggs and roast beef are the only things I've found really need salt. And if I have a cheese omelette or eat bacon with my eggs I don't even need salt on them. Maybe a little salt is needed "to bring out the flavor" of things- like tomato sauce and in baking- but if you can taste the salt then it isn't bringing out the flavor, it is covering it up. So, big note to chiefs- it is much better to "undersalt" your food than oversalt. Put saltshakers on the table for those who wish to raise their blood pressure. And serving me salty food doesn't increase your monetary intake as all I'm drinking at your restaurant is tap water.

A lot of readers complained to me about chef-instructor Brian Patterson's explanation for why restaurant food is salty in my recent Ask Tom column.  I agree, I'd rather get food that could use a boost of salt at the table than sit down to a dish that made me reach for my water glass every bite.

Speaking of mxdc, Tom I was wondering if you've had a chance to eat there yet and what was your opinion. We went last week and felt the food, while good, was way overpriced considering the tiny portions. $18 for a 2 inch cube of stringy, flabby pork belly?

Yep, I've been. But I'll hold off commenting until after my preview runs July 24 in First Bite.

In the restaurants in which I worked, attempts were made to accomodate vegetarians - however, the same care was not taken as it would be with, for instance, allergies. One is a preference, the other a serious health condition. So, for instance, a veggie dish might be served, forgetting that the plating sauce was chicken-stock based. Whereas if the customer said they had an allergy to chicken or eggs, the kitchen staff would have stopped to think about it more thoroughly.

I appreciate the honesty, but for real? Eating vegetarian isn't always merely a "preference." Some subscribers do it for religious, ethical and yes, medical, reasons as well.

 

Cue the angry posters!

Tom - my just-turned-18-and-about-to-start-college niece is coming for a visit. She lives in an area where she doesn't get exposure to much culinary diversity, so she's a bit of a timid eater. But I think she'll be more game to try new things this trip, since it is her first solo trip to the big city to hang with her aunt. I'm thinking lunches out wouldn't be as intimidating as dinners (always time to get a snack later if it bombs) and I'm thinking places like Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinya for different-but-not-weird food. Where else would you recommend to take people who maybe want to be adventurous but need a bit of a safety net? Many thanks for your thoughts!

All three of your ideas are great, in part because the Spanish/Mexican/Middle Eastern menus (respectively) are epic and include lots of "safe" as well as more adventurous small plates. And if Miss Timid doesn't like one three-bite choice, she can turn her attention to another tapa on the table.

Saw your response to the question re: dinner before Book of Mormon. You didn't mention Marcel's, which touts itself as "the" place to go before a KC performance. Should I cancel my reservation?

No! I adore Marcel's. But the original poster was asking for something on the casual side, which the French restaurant is not.

Waiter at Le Pain Quotidian was grumpy and having a bad day when my mum and I were there a while back - oh well. Our coffee took forever and arrived under luke warm. I pointed this out to him - it really was undrinkable. He picked up the coffee pot with such anger and force it joggled my coffee cup which spilled onto the table. He went stalking off and I got napkins and cleaned it up. Mum and I was in a quandary what to do. Should we have said something to the manager do you think - we ended up doing nothing.

Ouch. I would have spoken up. I imagine you weren't the only customers he was turning off that day.

Um, why CAN'T you ask him to stop touching you? Politely, of course. Then, if he does it again anyway, I'd move up to telling him he just lost his tip.

"Hey, pal, only my masseuse gets to do that!"

What about Ancora - recommended? We have tickets to Book of Mormon and it is really close (good for a companion with a bad back who can't walk far), but we are willing to take a cab if necessary.

I like the food well enough at Bob Kinkead's "pop-up," but I'd wait to return until the chef  makes over the interior.  The setting looks cheap. My original suggestions offer both pleasant environs and good cooking.

Got to disagree that the poster should have to call-- a highchair is reasonable to expect if the restaurant is calling itself "family-friendly". If that's something other people say, the poster should have called. But if that phrase appears on its website or whatever, I'd say that STRONGLY implies that amenities for kids are available within reason (and a highchair is reasonable).

I don't want to speak for Palena, but the web site may have used the "family friendly" language to differentiate between its casual cafe and its more formal dining room.   I still believe calling ahead and verifying is the way to go.

An idea of whether or not the restaurant is serving tv dinners is the menu length versus restaurant/kitchen size. If a small place has a huge menu, are they really making it all in house?

Interesting observation!

I taste it. If it tastes fresh, then I'm happy. If it turns out that it was frozen and that it tasted fresh, I'm still happy. Why should I care how something is prepared as long as the taste and nutrition is unaffected?

For starters, if I'm shelling out $40 for a main course, I want to know I'm paying for an actual chef's creativity and labor.

One clue is when they can't accommodate a substitution. First time I encountered a frozen meal, one of our party asked for the stuffed sole, but without the shrimp stuffing. They wouldn't/couldn't accommodate her request. We later discovered all their entrees were pre-prepared.

Interesting! Thanks for sharing -- and where was this, do tell?

There was nothing I disliked especially about the place -- though I apparently find stage-set "Parisian" decor less compelling than you. I found it a bit fake-y. I'd eat there again if the I was in the area and the wait wasn't absurd. But the gap between reputation and what it delivers seems unusually large for what is really just another bistro, but with a better decorating budget. Points for the service, though.

As I wrote in my preview of the place, just after I had been scouting bistros in Paris, the food I had early on at Le Dip was superior. And I'm not sure what's fake about the place? I've been to the French pavilion in Disney World, so I know what fake looks and tastes like.

I would also bet that a sign out front advertising a "Menu touristique" in 7 languages would be a good indication. In my travels (not just to France, but everywhere I go), I generally seek out the smaller places, without multilingual menus. But it sounds like the Sysco Monster is encroaching...

More than two languages on a menu, and I stay away from a restaurant.

Eventide in Arlington. Great atmosphere. Quiet, elegant. Food maybe a little less memorable than it used to be. And yes, it is very aggravating how loud how MANY of the restaurants are, especially the new ones. We too would like to taste the treats, but the noise is so unpleasant we avoid then and go elsewhere. And often opt to stay home and cook.

Yes to Eventide (although I haven't been back since a new chef came aboard.)

Just chiming in here - it's a huge disappointment when a restuarant is so loud you cannot speak with others at the table and must yell. I completely disagree that lively equates to loud. I now have a preferred list of places and otherse I will go, knowing the dining experience will be lively. Sometimes I want to have a conversation with my spouse without screaming. As parents of a toddler, we have enough lively entertainment at home most nights. I quite enjoy the bar scene at Restaurant Eve for a refined cocktail and delicious food.

Or the bistro at Eve.

 

And on that note, folks, I bid you all a great rest of the week! Thanks for joining me.

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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