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

Jul 16, 2014

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 enjoyed your article about dining near the First Lady. It reminded me of an evening many years ago, in Cactus Cantina, when George and Laura Bush made one of their few visits to DC restaurants. I was in the bar with coworkers, and we noticed the Secret Service agents milling about. A little later, I went to the ladies' room, which is down a steep flight of stairs. As I was coming up the stairs, there was a group of people coming down. I looked at the woman in the party and thought, "Huh--she looks a lot like Laura Bush!" She passed me on the stairs and smiled politely. And right behind her was the president himself; I brushed elbows with him as I went up the stairs. No Secret Service agents stopped me or made me wait. I can't imagine that happening nowadays!

Boy, neither can I!  Did this take place pre-9/11?

 

President Bush wasn't much of a restaurant patron, but Laura Bush got out of the White House for meals quite a bit. It's definitely easier for first ladies than their husbands, although I noticed Mrs. Obama had at least seven suits protecting her throughout Barcelona last Thursday.

 

THIS JUST IN:  There's a fresh face in the kitchen at Mio, where owner Manuel Iguina has installed Roberto Hernandez, an occasional guest chef at the Latin restaurant, in the open kitchen.  Hernandez has cooked at the Blue Door restaurant  in Miami's Delano hotel and has served as chef de cuisine at Donald Trump's Palm Beach Mar-a-lago Club. The move is intended to inject even more Puerto Rican flavor into Mio.

 

Good morning, gang. Let's begin.

We were recently at a local restaurant that had three tables side by side. We were at one table on the right and another party of four (an adult and three young women) was on the left. The middle table was left open. One of the young women gets up and plugs her phone into an outlet by the middle table and leaves her phone on the table, apparently to charge. (Yes, the phone had its own table!) Every two minutes she would get up to send or receive a text and stand next to us. Someone else in her group then proceeded to have a very loud phone conversation about a weekend wedding. We heard ALL of the details. Both of these actions were very distracting and interfered in our own conversation. What would you have done?

I would have brought the problem to the attention of a manager, who could have solved the issue by 1) seating a party between you and the loud talkers or  2) relocating you to another part of the dining room. Neither solution is exactly to your advantage, but both seem preferable to the forced eavesdropping.

 

Restaurateurs, is this becoming more of a problem? Let me/us know.

Maybe I missed it, but I haven't heard you say anything recently about the new G Street Food, practically next door to your office. It tried to be more than just a sandwich shop (chasing away my business in the process) but seems to be scaling back.

Such timing! As I type, I'm eating a spicy chickpea-spinach salad from the WP's new extended cafeteria.

 

G Street Food has very good customer service and a tidy dining area in its favor.  Honestly, I haven't had much from the menu. Today's salad is satisfying enough, but I can't say the same about the Vietnamese sandwiches, served on cottony bread and layered with dry chicken on a recent visit.

Hi Tom! Thanks for taking my question. I need some fresh ideas for weekend dinners around Dupont Circle for some out of town guests. My go-to has been Firefly. I appreciate the suggestions!

I'd add to your list the Greek-themed Mourayo, the pie-centric Pizzeria Paradiso, the fast-casual Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen and Obelisk for upscale Italian (some of the city's best, in fact).

One thing to remember for people who are arguing 15% vs 20% - on a $50 meal it's a $2.50 difference and a $100 meal is $5, etc, etc. If you can afford to eat those meals then I'm guessing the waiters would appreciate those extra few bucks more than you would.

Thanks not just for for doing the math, bit for encouraging folks to be generous where possible.

What is the role of the restaurant? is it to cater and serve to your desires or is it to offer you a product that they believe you will enjoy? Honest question. I deal with this with my wife. virtually every restaurant we go from a deli sandwich shop to 5 star, she always has some customization request. (I'm not talking baked potato instead of fries or dressing on the side, I'm talking flour vs corn meal. i worked in a restaurant as a teen. I know other than basic changes the workers HATED those type of folks. so based on a prior question about not writing own orders and inevitable mistakes, i ask my question.

Restaurants are in the hospitality business, part of which involves (hopefully) making customers happy with food, service and design. Where possible, I think it's great if a kitchen can accommodate special requests. When it can't -- or when requests might significantly change a chef's vision or what he or she thinks is appropriate -- one solution is for the diner to spend his or her time and money elsewhere. In other words, I don''t think it's fair for a customer to go to a place that specializes in A, B, C and expect to order X, Y, Z.

 

The customer isn't always right. The customer is always just the customer.

We went out to dinner Saturday to a small place with only six choices for the main course. The menu listed all the ingredients in each dish. One of our party inquired whether he could have a dish without a sauce whose main ingredient he hates with a passion. The answer was a flat "no", no changes, period. I ordered the dish and the sauce was presented as a smear and a couple of dribbles on the edge of the plate. It could easily have been left off. Why do places do this? None of our party will go back to this restaurant because of the arrogance and dismissive attitude.

If changes are as simple as that -- not adding a sauce -- diners should get their wish. Or am I missing something bigger here?

As an avid reader of your chats and columns, I am at a loss re: what to say when somebody thanks me for something. "No problem" is obviously unacceptable, as was discussed in this forum last week. My traditional response has been "You're welcome," but surely someone might take offense at that, as it suggests that the thankee is somehow dependent upon me for their feeling of welcomeness or even their self-worth. "My pleasure" was accepted in less enlightened times, but now it seems unacceptable to suggest to someone that they exist solely for someone else's pleasure (as a man, I couldn't live with myself if I said such a thing to a woman). "No, thank you" would undoubtedly be seen as confrontational to some, and especially with everything that's going on with Israel/Palestine, I would never want to imply to anyone that warring factions are somehow acceptable or desirable. "Don't mention it" seems hierarchical, and if said to anyone of an ethnic, gender or sexual minority that has been silenced by oppressive society in the past, would undoubtedly be devastating. My current strategy, upon being thanked, is to simply stare at someone with a gaze that reflects feelings of warmth, empathy, sympathy, tolerance, selflessness, satisfaction, respect, acceptance, guilt, outrage and joy (I've been practicing in the mirror). Thoughts?

You'd make a great comedian.

I recently had all my grown children in town for a rare family dinner. We went to one of the restaurants that you recently recommended on this blog. We spent about $370 for the six of us and would have spent more except I went light on the tip ("only" 15%) because of the poor service. Everyone in my party was disappointed. The food was excellent, but the service and the table were unsatisfactory. The table was in a remote location and a hot corner of the restaurant. The waiter forgot multiple items we ordered and, perhaps because of the remote location he was seldom around to correct it. When he was around, he avoided eye contact. We reminded him of two things he'd forgotten, and he sent one but not the other. The plates came out of their logical sequence. The last item came to our table after we'd asked for the check. I sent a polite, detailed critique to the manager and he responded by offering a credit -- far less than we'd spent -- toward another meal. Now, on the one hand, he didn't need to offer us anything, but on the other this just seems like an invitation to spend more of my money, albeit with a discount, in a prestigious restaurant that had already disappointed us. Can you help me think about this? Go back or skip it? There are so many good restaurants in Washington, so why spend more time and money in this one?

  Give the restaurant a second chance and here's why:

 

  You said the food was "excellent." 

 

 The manager not only responded to your critique, he offered a discount on the next meal (again, the quality of the food was never at issue).

 

  Six diners might have been tough to relocate, but one of you could have asked to be reseated if you felt the table was undesirable.

 

   Restaurants, even the best ones, make mistakes. It's how they try to recover from problems that's important, and this establishment seems to be trying to win your favor.

There are times when a server deserves to be stiffed. As a former server I know what part of the house is at fault I write stiff in the tip box since back many years ago at one of DCs and also at one NYCs top restaurants the server or someone changed the tip when I wrote in all zeroes. At the time I was AUSA so I pressed charges and both places lost their Amex privileges which led to NYC spot closing.

Service has to be pretty appalling for me not to tip. What exactly prompted your reaction(s)?

I saw a while ago via twitter that you were off to Helsinki ... when can we expect a report? I'm heading there mid-August and would love a fresh list of places to try! Thanks.

I'll be writing about my meals there Aug. 17, for the Travel section. The mini-reviews should be online by Aug. 15. (You're in for a treat!)

Only problem is that when the Prez or first family travel to dine out they will close both sides of the interstate for at least a hour maybe longer which is huge inconvenience for everyone else. The need to stay home and I felt the same way when Billy W were prez. They can have food delivered

I disagree! I love seeing the occupants of the WH get out and enjoy our city. The residence can be confining.  Mrs. Obama's "motorcade" wasn't at all obvious, by the way. She can travel with a couple of cars, easily.

Hi Tom, We're fortunate to have an upcoming vacation scheduled in Maine and New Hampshire-we've seen many wonderful Portland (ME) suggestions from you and the chatters. Do you or the chatters happen to have any good spots to suggest in the Bretton Woods/Mount Washington area of New Hampshire? Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

New Hampshire, anyone?

I think that requesting a lot of changes to items on a menu must be problematic for most restaurants, depending on the nature of the request. If it is really, really important to you to have a menu item changed, then it is up to you to check the menu beforehand, whether online or even ask to see it before being seated, and confirm that the change can be accomodated. I have some dietary restrictions and I always check beforehand. As an aside, this is one reason it is very helpful for restaurants to have current menus online.

You raise some good points, one of which is, if you have a special request, make it known *before* you venture out. Most restaurants *want* to accommodate their patrons. But they can't suddenly remake a dish or run out and buy something special during prime time.

I don't care for mushrooms, but it usually comes in lots of sauces for beef. So I just mosie it over to the edge. I'm not allergic, I'm not going to go into shock and I'm not a Sex and the City whiner. I care more about the rest of the plate.

Good for you!

Tom - I was never bothered by the "no problem" response to a request but for some reason "not a problem" sort of annoys me. I can sort of justify the difference in my head, but it really makes no sense.

I say, drop it (the expression, that is). A smile and a nod are sufficient responses to "Thank you" in my book.

Hi Tom - I very much enjoyed your piece on dining next to the first lady. With that said, I am just stunned by the nasty comments you received about it. I sometimes question how you can keep a sense of humor, but you do! Thanks for all of your great work.

Anything written about the POTUS and the FLOTUS, be they Democrats or Republicans, brings out the haters. I can only imagine the comments political reporters get.

It's a gorgeous day so I'm already thinking about eating dinner outside tonight. Where would you go for an outdoor dinner? One of us is vegetarian. Open to going anywhere in the District, would love suggestions particularly in Shaw or Glover Park/Tenleytown area since it'll be a nice evening for an extra long post-dinner stroll.

Table, on N St. NW in Shaw, has a rooftop deck that's fun. The much more casual Surfside in Glover Park also offers a bird's eye view with its menu. Downtown, I like Bombay Club near the White House; Penn Quarter counts Oyamel, Jaleo and 701 as good al fresco dining destinations.

On Saturday my husband and I had reservations at a fairly popular restaurant. We got there 7 minutes before our reservation and they told us that they couldn't seat us to our reservation time. We told the host that we would sit on the couch right next to the host stand. We waited and saw 2 other couples come in (without reservations) and get seated after a brief wait. 15 minutes after my reservation time I asked the host when we could expect to be seated. It was clear he forgot about us and did not apologize. He also forgot that we had a reservation (even though I had mentioned it as soon as I walked in). He sat us immediately (the restaurant was half empty-- there was no reason to wait) and we had a great dinner, but we were really off put that there no apology or adherence to keeping reservations. Should I have said something?

I think restaurants and patrons should each get a 15-minute (or so) grace period.  Your host sounds like a ditz.  He forgot your party within 22 minutes?!

Mushrooms can put me into shock and I carry an Epi pen. Epi pens won't reverse the reaction. I avoid so many cuisines as a result, and had a life changing experience as a result of unexpected mushrooms (in chili!!). When I ask for changes, it's to stay alive.

Totally understand. There's a huge difference between not liking something and not wanting to eat something that could kill you.

I have a new yorker friend coming to DC for the first time next week. I figured I'd take them out to 14th st, since it's convenient to me, but as they very much have the refuse to be impressed, NYC has it all attitude, any suggestions as to which bars/restaurants stand out as distinctive to DC on that corridor that I could show off to them?

DC has a lot to be proud of in Logan Circle and thereabouts.  I'd definitely try to fit in drinks at One Bird/Two Stone or the new Tico, pizza at Etto, something Spanish at Estadio, oysters at Pearl Dive, maybe a Greek dish at Kapnos or a street food snack at Compass Rose.

Because of my dietary allergies...I try to research the establishment beforehand. And to make things even easier, time permitting, CALL the restaurant first and request the changes or find out if they can accommodate the request. Food allergies or sensitivities (regardless anaphylaxis reactions are not to be taken lightly)...I have to check and double check. Nothing ticks me off more than a server or kitchen that tells me that X isn't in the food and it turns out they either didn't check or just assume that I am being difficult and I have a reaction.

Never. Assume.

My boyfriend treated me to dinner at the Inn at Little Washington on Friday evening. I can't rave enough about how lovely the entire experience was. The staff is warm and engaging and our meals were wonderful. We asked for a visit to the kitchen (stunning!) and had the opportunity to chat with Chef Patrick O'Connell. It's certainly worthy of the consistent accolades... and well worth the 2+ hours of traffic on a Friday afternoon!

Chef Patrick O'Connell and company thank you for the endorsement of the four-star retreat.

This sounds less like a picky eater and more like a power play. Is she that picky when you eat at home? Seriously.

I have less and less tolerance for picky eaters anymore, or people who act out with their restaurant requests because they can.

If you have a food allergy you certainly should be able to ask for changes, same with restrictions due to personal beliefs. Asking ahead of time is best. The OP's wife sounds like she almost always wants a change which puts her in the difficult, picky eaters club. Is she OCD or just controlling?

Maybe her mate can elaborate?

Shame OP friends from NYC weren't coming down 40 years ago when 14th st was at its peak with strip clubs and the stroll in full swing. The current 14th st is not very impressive compared to its heyday.

Huh.

Tom, when was the last time you actually went to Shophouse? I was a huge fan when it opened, but the last few times I went the quality of the meats had significantly declined, and it was a shadow of it's former self.

I dropped by the Dupont Circle location about a month ago, which is why I continue to recommend the place.

Look Tom, there are bad servers out there, and it will reflect on the restaurant. Maybe they're wonderful people, but this isn't their forté. I'm not doling out cash for someone who has an attitude, doesn't come to the table more than to take the order (if that) and never seen again. Maybe the food is great, but if I have to wait 30 minutes (I'm talking to you Baby Wale) to even get a menu, I'm not going to be tipping, staying or coming back. It's also unacceptable to make your patrons, the people who pay your bills, wait for an hour without so much as an "I'm sorry the kitchen is backed up". Baby Wale is the epitome of terrible service, mediocre food, ridiculous waits. The only thing they get right is the pouring of water. They then have the temerity to try to rush you out the door so they can turn the table! I actually went three times, once at the bar and you'd think I was in some weird Aeroflot flashback to the early 90s, except that Aeroflot flight was better.

I hope the staff at Baby Wale is reading this.

At the place inDC my bro and I were dining out before catching a show at Blues Alley. We had both come from work and were in suits. At the time I was in my early 30's and he in his late 20's. He is also a former server. The other tables that our server had were occupied by couples and 4 tops in their late 40's and early fifties and our server was giving these tables great service and ignoring us because we were younger. Our bill with drinks and wine apps and dessert back 20 years ago was over $150. We werent dining cheap. In NYC the server was hitting on gf when I went to restroom and stepped outside to make a call.

Hitting on a guest is bad form, I agree.

Not the OP, but I can share the story of the one time I did not leave a tip. I was dining with three friends, all in our early 20s, at a restaurant near Union Station. When taking our orders our server was very brusque and almost hostile with us. He spoke as few words as possible, did not make eye contact, and his body language clearly communicated that he would much rather be somewhere else. The clincher was when he brought the beer I had ordered. He slammed it down on the table still overflowing with foam, and quickly walked away with beer flowing out of the glass onto the table. I had to flag down another server to ask for extra napkins to clean up the mess. The server's rude treatment may have been due to the fact that one member of our party was a transgender woman. I did not leave a tip. (Yes, yes, I know I should have talked to a manager, but I was young and non-confrontational, and just wanted to get out of an embarrassing situation).

Ouch.

Yep-- and in 22 minutes he only sat 2 other couples (sitting on the other half of the couch, in plain view of him, close enough to me to hear they didn't have reservations). We will absolutely go back, but will never make a reservation again.

Something tells me that when you go back, the problem host won't be there to (not) seat you!

I had really bad service at a restaurant once, and I wrote CASH on the tip line -- no way a server can alter that to a dollar amount.

Clever, if misleading. I can imagine the server looking around for the promised "CASH" after you departed.

Cafe Ole south of Tenleytown on Wisconsin has a very veg-friendly menu and outdoor seating not right on Wisconsin Ave.

Thanks. Haven't grazed there in years ....

Was the ingredient your friend "hates with a passion" by any chance cilantro? I can't stand the stuff and will do anything I can to avoid it.

Cilantro is high on the list of things diners either love or hate.

For breakfas: Polly's Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill. Just awsome and has really amazing views.

You're making me hungry.

Will Citronelle ever return?

I keep hearing that Michel Richard wants to stage another restaurant here, but he's having a tough time of it in NYC right now.  Who knows for sure?

I want to go to the Tysons Area to meet a friend for lunch on Saturday. Seems the places I want to go (I'm looking at you, Bazin's on Chuch and The Palm) aren't open for lunch on Saturdays. Any ideas for a Saturday lunch in that area?

America Eats Tavern just rolled out in the Ritz-Carlton and I believe the restaurant, from Jose Andres, is open for lunch on weekends.

There was one time I left a 1% tip with my reasoning on the credit card slip-- we got our drinks (wine) that we ordered as soon as we got the menus after the entree, which was over an hour after we sat down. My husband's food came 30 minute before mine (and the wine). When I finally got the food, it was cold and the order was visibly wrong (think of getting beef stew when you ordered chicken parm). The waiter insisted that it was what I ordered and I saw my food go to the next table (which had the same reaction, but a much better waitress who switched the plates). When we finally got the check (over an hour after I got my (wrong) entree, the waiter went on break and was no where to be seen), I was livid.

Understand.

Not too long ago, I had minimal service at an average restaurant. Once the food was served, I couldn't flag down anyone to even get a water refill. I left a tip, but it was only 10%. I made a point to write on the check why the tip was low.

Good for you. Otherwise the "lesson" might have gone unnoticed. The waiter might have assumed you weren't much of a tipper. (Again: Never. Assume.)

Hi Tom, Do you or any posters have suggestions on what to do around Little Serow while waiting for table?

Drink at Hank's Oyster Bar around the corner!

Where in the district can I get Georgian food? I'd like to have khinkali without trekking to New York?

Gosh, if there were Georgian food in DC, I'd be writing about it.

I enjoyed the piece, Tom. It worked fine as a Style section (remember when it was the "ladies'" page?) piece. Some of the comments you were getting were because it was in an eye-catching spot on the front page of the website. People who might not even read the Style section were seeing it, thinking it was not news and reacting accordingly. I understand why the Post does that, but people's reactions have something to do with website placement. That, and some people are just horrible :)

Thanks for noticing. It was meant to be a light read.

I've always loved dining out, worked some food service jobs in college, and always thought it would be fun to work as a server or bartender. I have a friend that offered me a part-time gig where he works. It's mostly a carry-out place but some people eat in and they serve wine and beer, but is mid-40's too late to get in the game? I can stand and walk and carry heavy things and I'm sick of my office job.

Sounds as if you're up for the challenge! But restaurant work is *work.* Keep in mind that when most of your friends are playing -- weekends, holidays -- restaurant staff are on the clock.

Tom, Since we're talking about food allergy accommodation, I just want to share kudos about Red Hen. My husband is allergic to white fish and mentioned that when he made the reservation. After we ordered our meals (and neither of us ordered anything that mentioned fish), the server came back and said she had noticed the white fish allergy and wanted to let us know one of the dishes had a sauce that contained anchovies. My husband said he didn't think anchovies were a problem, so it was fine to not make any changes. Afterward, she said the kitchen erred on the side of leaving off the sauce. I haven't been anyplace else that was so careful (though some people would probably be miffed that the order was changed without their request; we thought it was very thoughtful and attentive, because who knows - maybe anchovies would have set off his allergy). And yes, we tipped accordingly, and sent an email to the restaurant to let them know we appreciated our server!

You rock. So does Red Hen.

Everyone has been with someone who asks to modify a dish no matter where they go. Unless the person has food allergies or religious beliefs, I think it is incredibly self-centered behavior. In most restaurants you write about, I'd wager a great deal of thought and care goes in to composing each dish. "Without the (blank), please" alters the dish. On a more positive note, we hosted some foreign work colleagues at Rasika for lunch yesterday, and one of the individuals has a somewhat unusual (to me, anyway) religious restriction. In addition to being a vegetarian, he cannot eat vegetables that grow underground. The restaurant provided him with a version of Palak Chaat that was every bit as delicious as the unmodified version, as well as modified entree which my colleague raved about. I mentioned to my colleague that many restaurants are able to accommodate dietary requests, but it's best if they have advance notice. Rasika pulled it off seamlessly.

Attention to detail: One reason the modern Indian restaurant merits four stars.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for joining me.

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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 contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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