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

Jul 17, 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.

We finally made it to Le Diplomate (for brunch), and loved it -- at least, loved the food and the service. (The check, not so much, though I can't say it was out of line relative to similar restaurants. And oh, you were so, SO right about the noise level.) Given your affinity for the place, as well as your many experiences in Paris, I wondered what you thought of Mark Furstenberg's slam ("a Disney World caricature of a French brasserie"). (Having been to both Paris and Disney as well as Le Diplomate, I didn't agree.) Beyond that, I think many of your readers will be curious about your take on Furstenberg's piece.

I disagree with Mark about his depiction of the best French bistro experience in town, and a number of other points in his feature in last Sunday's Magazine.  

 

For instance, I believe DC helped launch  the national cocktail revolution, thanks in part to so many very talented people, some of whom I highlighted in a drinks piece recently, and I know we have one of the most sophisticated, or at least knowledgeable, food audiences in the country. This is coming from someone who used to report from San Francisco.

 

  But I was fascinated by what Mark wrote about real estate in our market and how our unique history effected  how we eat and think about food even today.

 

Reader thoughts?

 

Good morning, gang. Bring on your questions, your rants and your raves.

Tom, I love your work, but I've got to say, I'm not sure I understand your affection for a few spots. Based on your reviews, I've now been to Curry Mantra several times, and I ordered many of your suggested dishes. It's generally average, and the prices have gone up, so it's overpriced average. The service is impeccable, but the food has been nothing special. And great Indian food doesn't need to cost that much. (When I went recently,the papadam (sp?) was stale! I feel similarly about Ehtiopic (and have Ethiopian friends who agree). There is one appetizer there that is exceptional (buticha?), but nothing else stands out, except, again, the prices. Do you make the rounds of Ethiopian places and compare? How did you settle on Curry Mantra and Ethiopic as being such standouts? Is it the nicer settings that attract you?

I haven't been to the original Curry Mantra in awhile. Same for Ethiopic.  They may well have changed since my last visits.

 

What bothers me about your post is the not so subtle implication that Indian and African food shouldn't cost much just because they're Indian and African.  Both cuisines can be pretty labor-intensive; Indian can use expensive ingredients.

 

I always compare like restaurants to like restaurants in my evaluations of places. Right now, for instance, I'm keen on LacoMelza in Silver Spring for Ethiopian.

Hi tom! Help! My boyfriend and father are meeting for the first time and we're going to thai xing. Since it is BYOB we are planning to bring wine but we're not sure how to plan for an unknown, tasting menu.  What would you recommend for this Thai experience?  Thanks in advance!!

I like your sense of adventure!

 

You should know going into Thai X-ing that not much is predictable.  The food kind of just shows up. It may or may not be spicy, although it is almost always very good. And yes, you may spot a cat darting in and out of the basement kitchen.

 

In sum, bring a bottle of wine for each of you, sit back and enjoy the ride.

Tom- Excited for an upcoming dinner at Mintwood Place--any can't miss dishes for two omnivores?

Good timing; I was there just recently. Among the many reasons you'll be glad to find yourself in Cedric Maupillier's dining room are a salad of burrata ringed in frizzy fried kale and a main course of risotto made with hearty grains, carrots and asparagus.

Two foodies approaching anniversary number 30. Done most of the standard must-do "special night" restaurants. Last on our list was Komi, but it is closed the week we are looking for. Any recommendations for excellent food, quiet but not precious service and atmosphere? Anywhere in the DC metro area is good.

Thirty years together! What's the secret (aside from all the good food you two seem to have shared)?

 

You don't say where you've been, but I'd aim for a table at the formal dining room at Palena; the bistro at Restaurant Eve; Le Diplomate in Logan Circle;  the rear dining area at Sushi Taro, where the chef cooks just for you and a few others; and Trummer's on Main (which has a new chef) in Clifton, if you're up for a drive.

Hi Tom, love the chats and your columns. My husband and I just returned from a vacation to Northern California where we ate and drank very well every night. While dining at Nopa in San Francisco we ran into an issue that we both immediately thought "what would Tom say/do?" Throughout the evening we had been chatting with the waitress and manager at Nopa about our "food tour" of the bay area and as a treat, they sent over an extra dish for us to try--something they said was one of their favorite sides that was often overlooked by diners. The side dish, as well as our apps, entrees and desserts were all fabulous. However, when we received the bill, the "gifted" side was on the check. It wasn't very expensive (maybe $8), so in fear of sounding cheap we didn't know if we should mention it, but then we discussed and thought that you would advise us to tell the manager. We did, and both he and the waitress were apologetic about it and removed it promptly without any awkwardness. In the end, I'm glad we dealt with it rather than let it tarnish our memory of what was otherwise a fabulous meal! Thanks for all of your advice. PS. We also ate at State Bird Provisions and Mission Chinese and have nothing but great things to say about both!

Good call! When a restaurant sends out a dish without your asking for it, you shouldn't be expected to pay for what amounts to a gift -- unless, of course, you're a restaurant critic and can't accept freebies. 

I've tried to ask this before and am hoping I'm not annoying you by trying again. You've really helped me out in the past. My daughter is looking for a nice place to go for dessert with about a dozen friends for her 16th birthday (dinner would be way too expensive!). We've come up with Co Co. Sala but was wondering whether you could recommend other places, especially in the Bethesda/Rockville area. The place should have at least one non-dairy option (although I realize that one is the most I can probably hope for). Thanks!

I didn't respond initially because I didn't feel as if I had a good response.  Sadly, our market is not known for great dessert lists. However, you might try Praline, the French bakery and bistro in Bethesda. Palena has a terrific pastry chef in Aggie Chin. It's  not a dessert-only type of place, although it wouldn't hurt to call and ask if the kitchen could work out some deal for your daughter's group.

Saw your first bite column today and noted your dislike of a kitchen serving dishes "as they please." It is a simple problem to deal with. Order by course. This is how small plates are supposed to be ordered. I do this all the time. Restaurants often don't like it, although I tend to order wine. I've lived in Italy, and no one bats an eye if one orders two courses and then decides on a third. If restauranteurs can change the implicit contract why can''t diners?

The problem with doing that at Teddy & the Bully Bar is that its portions are so small, you'd end up getting two or three bites at a time.

Last night my family had a delicious meal at Mintwood. Only issue? We arrived at 5:15 for a 5:30 reservation and the restaurant didn't open until 5:30. They would not let us into the restaurant until 5:30, so we stood outside in the heat (including one preggo lady and one elderly). My family thought this was unreasonable, and that they at least should have let us in to sit in the A/C, but I thought it was understandable since they weren't open. Thoughts?

If I'm getting the whole story (you didn't show up any earlier, right?) shame on Mintwood Place. I understand the need for rules, but when the thermometer hits triple digits and there are senior citizens and expectant moms involved, those rules need to be relaxed.

In your bio blurb on this page, no mention is made of your stint at the Village Voice. Why not? (I didn't even know you had worked for them until I read about you mistakenly being outed as the anonymous twitter-feeder love-child of Ruth (Reichel) and Anthony (he of the sharp tongue).

Wrong Sietsema. My distant cousin, Robert Sietsema, was the food critic (and an ace guide to NYC) at the Village Voice until recently. He's now scribbling for Eater in New York.

 

 

Any other BYOB places in town besides Thai X-ing? Definitely spoiled by Montreal's widespread BYOB, no corkage culture.

Chatters? I can't think of any other place off the top of my head.

Hi Tom! I'm heading to San Fran next week. I vaguely remember you saying your ideal final meal would be the chicken from someplace there, but i forget the details. Any help?

Zuni Cafe serves some of the best roast chicken -- anywhere. I've mentioned it numerous times in this forum, and most recent in my story on home entertaining story.

Hi Tom - I thought Mark Fuerstenberg came across as rather arrogant and cranky in his Sunday mag piece. I know he has had some success with his own places (and is maybe a friend of yours?), but I don't think his perspective really reflects the DC dining scene. My two cents!

He *is* a dear friend and he *is* a world-class crank. We agree to disagree all the time.

I would take your daughter to Serendipity in Georgetown. It's further from Bethesda, but it otherwise meets the requirements.

I haven't been, but thanks for the suggestion.

I couldn't tell from your First Bite column whether you liked it or not. I ate there for lunch last week and was underwhelmed. The menu was confusing and we did not get the same spiel about "sharing" that you got. The food was good, but I don't think it will be on list of go-to places.

I have mixed feelings about the place. Fun idea, so-so execution. Service was really off the night I dropped in.  Our wine was so slow in coming to the table, for instance, I thought someone might be fetching it from California.

A couple of the wine centric boards I frequent have an ongoing thread about whether restaurant reviewers are qualified to judge wine lists. (My personal thought is that it depends on the food writer.) I note however, that you seldom or ever comment on the wine lists/service/costs in your reviews. (However, I actually once, years ago, went to a place because you noted that the large number of tables with wine in a Montgomery County restaurant indicated that they had a fairly good list.) As a person who decides where to dine based both on the food and the wine (or ability to bring my own wine) I wonder why you don't comment more often about wine lists. I wouldn't expect you to critique the list, but a mention that there is an extensive/scanty/expensive/reasonably priced/etc. list would be much appreciated when reading your reviews.

Have you been reading me lately? I've devoted graphs to the liquid programs at Del Campo, Azur, Le Diplomate. And this Sunday, in my full review of Red Hen, I sing the praises of co-owner and wine maven Sebastian Zutant.

 

(a) Love the piece about cooking at home. I'm sure all of us regular readers look forward to seeing our names on a place card at your table. (b) I disagree with Mark Furstenberg in not calling Washington DC a great food city. He seems to be defining the city by its administrative boundaries. The suburbs -- Greater Washington, Metropolitan Washington -- ARE part of the city from a food perspective. To limit his review to downtown is unfair. For that matter, even the downtown office districts of NYC and SF do not offer the neighborhood/ethnic/unique markets he is saying we lack here.

Thanks for sharing.

I brought my family in from out of town to Osteria Elisir this weekend. While we all loved the food and drinks, our server was terrible. She lingered, made odd comments about our orders and conversations, and kept pushing us to order more than we wanted (to the benefit of her guaranteed tip for a party of more than six). I found it to be so bad that I actually wrote an email to the restaurant the next day, something I have never done before. I have yet to receive a response (sent the email on Sunday). Have you experienced any service issues at Elisir? I wanted to give it another try based on the quality of the food, but given that they didn't even give me a courtesy response to my email I don't think i'll be returning.

A week is a long time to wait for a response. I always advise restaurants to at least acknowledge receipt of a message even if there's not time to investigate or answer right away. Chef-owner Enzo Fargione is a pretty conscientious guy. Maybe he or his staff haven't seen it for some reason?

A good place for dessert *is* extremely hard to find in DC metro area. Serendipity does not live up to the quality of the original in NYC - nice staff, just not good food. Baked and Wired is open until 8pm or 9pm... possible for 12 friends?

Now, Baked & Wired I can vouch for, and really recommend. Great suggestion.

Any new thoughts since your 2 star review in 2005?

It's been that long?  I need to get back there.

What's up with the multiple references to a homosexual partner? I thought I have read comments from you in the past about taking a girl out for dinner.

While I may have referenced a gal pal or female dining companion in the past, I've never tried to hide the fact I am -- well, who I am.

Any tips from readers on restaurants in Poland's capital city? Any price range, just something worth making a stop for.

Warsaw, anyone?

Yes, you got it right. 15 minutes early. I'll let my family know. They'll be glad to know that they were right (and I, for once, was wrong)! Otherwise,the meal was fantastic. The Amish chicken my dad has was "the best white meat chicken" he's ever had. Service was also quite good.

Thanks for getting back before the hour is up. Sounds as if the cooking made up for the initial inhospitalty.

Hi Tom, I was excited to see your great review of Le Diplomate, which ran a week after we booked a table there and a week or so before our reservation. I was disappointed with our experience there for a few key reasons and I'm curious how you think they should have been handled.

First, we were not seated until 30 minutes after our reservation. I suspect for most, this slight inconvenience is no more than that, but I would have expected an apology or some understanding from the restaurant staff. Instead, we were merely steered towards an overcrowded bar. While, the bar scene there looks like the kinda place I would have a good bit of a fun a few years ago, now that I have to pay $20 an hour to have a babysitter and have a young child at home who wakes me up early every morning, I don't find it an appropriate way to handle a reservation that I booked weeks in advance, at least not for that long a period of time.

Second, since we were eager to order quickly, I didn't spend much time perusing the wine list and instead simply asked for the inexpensive rose that you'd recommended. It's my fault for not checking more closely, but instead of receiving the $27 bottle you liked, we were served another rose that was priced at $40. Not a big deal, but not what we ordered.

Finally, I applaud the owners for spending so much to create what's really a stunningly attractive restaurant, but I think they need to invest a bit more and install some sound proofing or other materials that will help dim the volume. We found it very difficult to hear each other across the table. I can only image how folks who are over 35 would do there. Anyway, dining there right after your review was probably the wrong time to go, but I did find my experience varied greatly from your own and am curious about what the right way to deal with the 30 minute wait is. I don't think I've ever had a reservation that was so delayed in my life. Thanks!

You waited 30 minutes for your reservation after showing up on time? Not good. Le Dip should have bought you a round of drinks at the very least.

 

I'm unclear about the wine situation. Did you get the wrong bottle of rose and not verify it when it came to the table? 

 

YES to more sound-proofing at the restaurant!

My thoughts are that he is a cranky old man whose 15 minutes of fame have long since passed. But specifically, and I recently had this discussion on another local message board, why is it that people think just because DC is the US capital that it can automatically compete with the huge mega-metropolises like NYC, LA, Paris, London, Tokyo, etc...? Does its title as such automatically mean it can sustain an industry comparable to a place with 10 to 20 times as many people? Compare DC to cities of comparable size and (with the obvious exception of New Orleans), I think it blows away the competition. This is not to say it can't improve or that it doesn't have some obvious weak spots, but holding it up to impossible standards is at best unfair and at worst utterly disingenuous.

Good point. We are tiny compared to NY and SF, those standard-bearers of good taste.

Tom, My husband and I are regulars at Del Ray Cafe and while we still love the food, it seems lately that the service has been slipping. 3/4 visits something will be screwed up with our order - croissants not coming out first, missing side and in extreme cases, completely wrong dishes. They are always prompt to fix things, but it's getting kind of annoying. Letter to management? Owner?

I'd pen a note to the owner and the chef: "Love the food, but can you bring the service up to speed, sil vous plait? "  Include as many details as you can remember.

A Thai restaurant with cats roaming????

You read that right.

I'm Polish and some of my favorite places in Warsaw are Buffo and Poezja. Definitely get a polish donut "paczki"at Cafe Blikle in "New Town."

Reader to the rescue!

Help! Where would you take your Italian friend for a special dinner?

Well, not an Italian restaurant.

 

Use the occasion to show off something significant here that your friend can't find back home. How about a drive to Paris -- Virginia, that is -- and the Ashby Inn?  Or Rogue 24? Or the oh so southern Vidalia downtown?

1980 called and wants its vocabulary back. That was a nice story by the way. Thank you for sharing a glimpse of your home life.

I smiled when I read that, too.

Tom, while I love a high quality meal, most weekends I like to go with friends to bars. What bar in DC/NOVA has the best "bar food?"

The other chatter's experience with being seated late reminded me to mention another thumbs-up from my experience -- for reasons beyond our control (I swear), we were actually late for our reservation (fortunately, toward the end of the brunch window, so less busy than at peak). I called to let them know (and apologize) and the hostess was wonderful about it and seated us pretty promptly once we got there.

Cool to know. Restaurant managers tell me they often bend rules for late diners as long as they communicate with the restaurant. 

Liberty Tavern and EatBar in Arlington

Yes to Liberty Tavern. My last meal at EatBar was less than stellar.

You've panned this place a bit in the past, and I've seen lots of defenses in response. We went with a group of 10 the other day and I have to say I was pretty disappointed. Some dishes included cold components (chicken fried rice with gristly, cold chicken) and some were merely mediocre. My xia xu was not nearly as good as what I can get at Miu Kee (where I would also get cai and rice on the side for the same price). Not crispy on the outside, not as flavorful on the inside.

Thanks for saving me a return visit to a busy but mediocre restaurant!

Introduced my business partner at lunch by just calling her my partner ... one guest blurted out, "I didn't KNOW you were gay!" Perhaps the poster was just avoiding confusion in a less than artful manner.

Ha! I'd like to think so, too.

Good morning! I'm a big fan of your stuff. Well, except for Sunday. I read your piece in the magazine. and was disappointed. Oh, there was nothing wrong with the piece, thorough, well written, even lively at times. But a hundred people in this city could have written giving dinner party advice. You are Tom Sietsema! Your newspaper space is precious! You have so much to offer! Like what? How about a response to or commentary on the Furstenberg piece? How about a review of Tyler Cowen's (a local!) "An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies"? How about a history of changes in the local restaurant scene? Rating: 1.5 stars, satisfactory, even interesting, read if convenient and nothing better at hand. Sorry!

Ouch!  My piece was only "satisfactory-to-good," eh? I think mixing things up now and then is a good thing. But thanks for the feedback.

Thanks for including the recipe for the blue cheese straws mentioned in the Magazine article. I'm looking forward to trying them. Because I'm bad, I think I'll add bacon. Have you tried other additions?

Bacon makes everything better, right? I haven't altered the original recipe, because what I've made before has been so delicious, I didn't see a reason to gild the lily.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for another lively hour.

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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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