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

Jul 02, 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.

At the beginning of our meal the waiter knocked over a glass with wine. Most of it went into the table cloth, on the wall and napkin. Just a small amount hit my husband's coat and pants. This is an upscale restaurant and never having had this happen to us what should we have expected the restaurant to do?( We did order a bottle.)

I would have expected the waiter to offer immediate and sincere apologies; clean up the mess on the linen and wall; replace the soiled napkin; and inquired about your husband's clothes. ("Are you comfortable, sir? Can we get the dry-cleaning bill for your suit?")

 

For good measure, the restaurant might also have offered a gratis appetizer or dessert to make up for the slip.

 

What did *you* expect the restaurant to do? 

 

 

DINING UPDATES: Busy Bryan Voltaggio introduced Aggio in Baltimore last Saturday “ahead of schedule!” says the chef. A spin-off of the restaurant-within-a-restaurant of the same name inside Range, the dinner-only Charm City outpost unfolds across 7,400 square feet and two levels.

 

As at the original in Washington, the new Aggio offers both a la carte and tasting menus of Italian flavors. Unlike the first, the second has a trattoria menu, which it serves in the bar area of the establishment, located within Power Plant Live. This diner is eager to try the fried chicken cacciatore, among the reinvented classics on the less formal bill of fare.

 

Voltaggio’s other project, a rebirth of Lunchbox in Frederick, is expected to open to the public in the Chevy Chase Pavilion by July 14, following final inspections this week and staff training. Taking what the chef learned from the closing of the first, the next Lunchbox will feature more sandwiches and salads made to order, house-made sodas, beer and wine and soft-serve ice cream in “fun” flavors, says Voltaggio.

 

 

GOING UNDER THE KNIFE: In advance of its 11th anniversary, Vermilion is closing after dinner service July 6 for some sprucing up. The Old Town fixture is expected to reopen – with a birthday party – at 8 p.m. July 17. Refinished floors, new furniture and art will be on display, I’m told.

 

COMING AND GOING: Felipe Milanes, the chef de cuisine at Masa 14 since April, has replaced Stephen Hartzell at Toro Toro, the youthful surf and turfer downtown. Both establishments are owned by the New York-based chef and entrepreneur Richard Sandoval. Milanes will continue to oversee the kitchen at the Latin-Asian Masa 14 on 14th St. NW, according to a representative.

 

TABLE TALK:


Hello Mr. Sietsema,

 

Chef Roberto Donna and the Roberto’s 8 family wanted to follow up regarding last week’s chat. It was mentioned by a future guest that we offered to seat them at the open kitchen or at a separate table from the Roberto’s 8 counter. Occasionally, when there is a reservation for a group of eight, we do offer the option since the Roberto’s 8 seating is cut in half by a column. Sitting at a different table would absolutely change the experience but we also do not want guests to miss out on spending time with their party.

 

We also offer this option if there is a wheelchair or any physical reason why a guest might not be able to sit in a counter setting.

 

Roberto’s 8 is intended to extend and provide a beautiful experience for the palate, so we are always willing to cater to our diners seating requests. Normally, Roberto’s 8 is setup to also expose diners to watching the many courses prepared and displayed by Chef Donna but we completely understand if it is a special occasion a diner would like to share with others.

 

As always, thank you for allowing us the opportunity to share our point of view and thank you for suggesting the counter seating!

 

Sincerely,

 

Angie Duran 
Al Dente 

 

 

Happy Wednesday, gang. Tell me what's on your mind today.

Tom -- my husband and I have been given $250 to spend on a dinner out. We dine out relatively frequently -- but usually with our two small children, and not at that price point. So we're at a bit of a loss on where to go. We love good food and good cocktails. What would you suggest? We're happy to go anywhere in the greater D.C. metropolitan area (though not to Fiola Mare -- we have already been there).

What a fun dilemma!

 

If you want to make it a road trip, think about the plush Charleston in Baltimore, where you can create your own tasting menu from the whole of an epic menu. (I can still taste the rabbit confit with creamy macaroni I had there earlier this year.)

 

If you want to stay closer to home, book one of the few tables at Makoto, the serene Japanese retreat in the Palisades where the chefs cook just feet in front of you. Somen noodles with pickled cherry blossoms and mountain vegetables made a particularly refreshing impression on my last trip. So did the soft shell crabs, rolled in rice cracker crumbs and fried to a fine crackle. 

Tom, question about your review of Mazagan in Arlington. It sounds like you mostly liked the food and the approach, so one-and-a-half stars seems a bit low. My wife and I ate there after it opened, and thought they did some things really well, but a few dishes were open to improvement, but we would go back (I thought the New York Strip kebabs were pretty awesome). Is Mazagan only one star better than La Tagliatella?

One-and-a-half stars translates as "satisfactory to good," which is exactly how I found the new Moroccan restaurant.

 

Liked the design/hated the loud music.

 

Liked the chicken-stuffed phyllo pie/The kabobs were uneven.

 

While the servers were genial, they weren't always attentive, quick or helpful.  The manager was the best of the bunch.

Tom, I'm expecting my 3rd kid, and I know that I can pretty much say goodbye to any fine dining opportunities for at least a year after this one is born. Therefore, I have a "bucket" list of dishes I want to try before the big day. I am happily making my way through but I am stumped on one: a pavlova. It's the kind of dish I would never make at home, but I am CRAVING what sound like fluffy light and airy textures. Any flavor will do. It's a texture thing. Is there anywhere downtown that serves a pavlova these days?! Thank you!!

I'm stumped.  Chatters? Chefs?

 

For the unitiated, pavlova is a dessert created by an Australian pastry chef in the 1920s in honor of a Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova. The confection consists of a delicate ring of crisp meringue that's typically heaped with whipped cream and fruit.

 

Sounds good right now, yes?

Hi Tom, I am very interested in your opinion on Daniel Boulud opening up shop here in Washington DC. In reading about it and his interviews, he seems to be portraying himself as the God of Food, gracing the city with his presence now that DC is "good" enough to have him. Do you think his arrival is going to be a positive bite for DC?

Reading Tim Carman's Food section story on Boulud and the future DBGB Kitchen and Bar at CityCenter, I don't get the sense Boulud sees himself as DC's food savior.

 

Is the French chef a big deal? The crowd of local chefs that showed up for his welcome party made that clear.

 

Would the story be more interesting for some of us if Boulud were planning another Daniel-esque restaurant here? Absolutely.  DBGB  sounds to me like Central Michel Richard -- a spin-off of a temple of haute cuisine (in Central's case, the late Citronelle in Georgetown). 

 

Washington has been a very good place to dine for years now. If anything, Boulud is late to the party.  And it's not exactly as if he's relocating here to cook, right?

Dear Tom - I wanted to love Fiola Mare, I really did. As fans of Casa Luca and the late great Maestro, we were really looking forward to trying Fabio's latest. But we found it a great disappointment. The food was quite good thought insanely overpriced (over $50 for each "simply grilled" fish?), but it was the terrible service that ruined the evening. The highlight was when they brought out the main courses while we were still eating our appetizers! First they tried to take our appetizer plates away while I was still eating in order to serve the entrees. Then, they tried to leave the entrees on the side of the table "for when we're ready." Their last effort was to offer to put the entrees under a heat lamp for a while (with just-filleted $54/pound Dover sole?!?) Only after we politely refused those options did they offer to have the entrees re-made and left us to finish our first courses in peace. After that, we were bombarded with freebies - two gratis side dishes, free refills on wine, and an extra dessert. While very generous, these freebies made me feel as though they had tried to rush us through to free up our table, and then figured out we were not rubes and that they had messed with the wrong people. A manager was well aware and involved. A very unpleasant experience - we will never go back and were prepared to be regulars if it had gone well!

Oh, dear. I'm sorry your experience was less than wonderful there.

 

Did you express your concern to the manager at any point? You mention he was "well aware," but did you actually chat him up?

 

I, too, hate the feeling of being rushed, especially in a fine-dining atmosphere, and I can understand why the flurry of freebies didn't smooth over the rough edges. 

 

Note to restaurants: Diners don't always want compensation when things go wrong; sometimes, they just want what they ordered and in a leisurely fashion.

We've been trying a lot of new restaurants (new to us) in DC lately, and whenever we make a reservation, we like to pick a nearby restaurant to go for drinks ahead of time (around 5-5:30pm). That way we get to explore two new places instead of one. Where would you suggest we go prior to dinners at Blue Duck Tavern and at Iron Gate?

I like your strategy. While both the restaurants you mention make good drinks, if you want to mix it up, try Quill in the Jefferson Hotel ahead of Iron Gate and West End Bistro before the Blue Duck Tavern.

Hi Tom, Our kids are going to Sleepaway camp for 2 weeks. Where should we eat? Anywhere in the area is fine, and we are pretty open about food and budget. Thanks! In the past we've done Cityzen, Palena :(, Blacksalt, J&G, 701, Kaz.Fiola.

Two weeks! That's a lot of good meals to contemplate. In no particular order, your break from the little ones should include visits to Red Hen in Bloomingdale, Thally in Shaw, Corduroy on 9th St. NW, Casa Luca downtown, Izakaya Seki near U St. NW and Et Voila! in the Palisades.

Hello! My boyfriend has some family and friends visiting from Canada until after Independence Day. They really like to eat and try new places. Some of their interests are a really good Southern soul food restaurant and a great steakhouse. They are on a slight budget. Any places come to mind that I can take them to that will impress their tastebuds without damaging their wallets? Thanks!

For steak on a budget, try Bearnaise on the Hill. It's a French charmer from TV celeb Spike Mendelsohn that lists a very good flat iron steak for $28 -- including soup or salad, a choice of sauce and unlimited French fries.

 

 For a taste of the South, I have high hopes for the re-opened Creme on U St. NW. , which is serving hush puppies and shrimp and grits, among other plates. 

Tom, I am looking for suggestions for our 10th wedding anniversary dinner next month. We have been out of the loop for a few years (Kids) so I am have a hard time picking something that I know will be good and special. Price is not a concern and we are open to any type of food. Komi has been our standby for special occasion meals but I am looking to branch out a bit. Thanks in advance.

The modern Greek Komi is a tough act to follow. If you want something that's current and hot, the Italian-inspired Fiola Mare would make a festive and delicious backdrop for the night. As would Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, headed by chef Tony Chittum.

Hey Tom, Any recommendations for casual dining in SFO for a family of 5? We are staying in the Fisherman's Wharf area in a few weeks while on vacation. We like seafood, Italian, and Chinese...thanks.

You definitely want to visit Yank Sing in the Rincon Center for dim sum, including the best dumplings in the city; the Hog Island Oyster Co. in the Ferry Building for raw oysters and other light seafood dishes; and Zuni Cafe on Market St.  -- among my favorite restaurants anywhere -- for its stellar roast chicken for two, salads, lunch-only hamburger and pastas.

Tom, if you were going to fireworks on the Mall, say between Lincoln and Washington Monument, where would you grab a bite to eat first? Thanks!

If you don't mind a stroll or a short cab ride, the following places near-ish the Mall still have seats available on the evening of the Fourth: Central Michel Richard, 701, Woodward Table, Oyamel, Bayou and Siroc.  It's a mixed collection, I realize, and your best bet may be a stool at the bars of the aforementioned restaurants.

I like Eatonville - and the decor is so fun.

So does the FLOTUS.

In Arlington, Lee Highway by Arrowine in a strip mall is Cassatt's which had (last year) a lovely little pavlova. Then there's the fabulous Pastries by Randolf at the other end of the strip mall. Can't lose.

Thanks for the suggestions.

Tom: For anyone who's in the Northern Neck, I urge a visit to "Merrior," a restaurant in Topping, Virginia, located on the bank of the Rappahannock River. My wife and I ate there twice last week - outside on the patio. We stayed with the "sea" menu - crab cakes, grilled tuna, whatever the "fish special" was. The dessert special at the time was pound cake with fresh berries and cream, and I wish I could have managed two helpings. Good service, and a great location. The bill for two, including a wine or beer apiece - around $70 - $75. Go there!

I see a road trip in some futures!

 

Merrior, some of you might know, is co-owned by Travis Croxton, who has Rappahannock Oyster Bar in Union Market, among other enterprises.

I heard about it a while back and just this morning re-read the reviews. Any more recent visits or comments? Sounds like it could be worth a trip downtown. I've had some good BBQ in Texas but am not particularly fussy about it.

Hill Country *is* fun. Great for groups, and close to the Mall.

Tom, I do understand that posters spending lots of money on fine dining do not want to feel rushed, but my husband & I usually go out to eat (NOT dine) at family/casual restaurants. I do not like sitting around waiting for the check to come, so I prefer to have the check when my food comes. I believe in many places the servers know that the patrons prefer that as well. I prefer to pay cash if I have the exact amount (including a generous tip, of course) so I don't have to wait to sign the slip. I also tip more generously in the lower cost places because I'm sure they don't get paid much. And I tip when I pick up a carry out pizza!

Some restaurants don't let servers "drop" the bill until a patron asks for it. So best to make your wishes known when you sit down.

Last week you mentioned Jackie's as a good option in downtown Silver Spring, any thoughts on 8407 Kitchen Bar and Olazzo's as other good choices there?

I haven't visited 8407 since Justin Bittner (ex-Bar Pilar) replaced Ed Witt (now at the Partisan).  And it's been years since I've eaten at Olazzo.

 

Have you tried Urban Butcher on Georgia Avenue? I gave the place two stars (a "good" rating) in March. Chef Raynold Mendizabal casts a wide net with his combination bar-lounge-restaurant-butcher shop and a menu that runs from beef empanadas and whole grilled fish to pasta and the steak called bavette.

I'm not sure what to make of these different titles when reading them on the website. Who is doing the cooking? Who is doing the designing of the menu, etc.?

The executive chef is the person who designs the menu,  oversees the cooking staff and is ultimately responsible for everything that leaves the kitchen. A chef de cuisine is typically the No. 2 in the kitchen and the sous chef is under that position, at least where that  hierarchy exists.

I have multiple parties at bars this evening. What should I have for lunch near Penn Quarter to prepare myself for a long night of imbibing?

Tacos at Oyamel, fried potatoes at Jaleo,  falafel at Zaytinya, anything at Rasika -- plus lots of sparkling water as you're partying and a couple of aspirin after your third drink.

Hi Tom, Do you ever visit any of the Lebanese Taverna outposts? I think I've figured out why the one in Bethesda is always empty. Front of house is surly when wait staff covers for hostess who is busy seating someone. Hostess sits you between two close tables of people, even when 10 other tables are open. Glasses are always dirty, our order came out wrong twice..and finally, we were billed for the wrong order and had to wait a while for it to be corrected. It's such a shame, as I enjoy the food, but it isn't quite the pleasant experience I would hope for..

I was a big fan of the family-owned restaurant --- before it expanded a la Five Guys and the cooking slipped.  The branches I've snacked in in the past few years show inattention to detail, mostly from the kitchen.

I don't eat seafood, so I am reluctant to ever do tasting menus. I know some places over vegetarian versions, but I really do want to eat the meat courses. What is the etiquette about asking for substitutions? For instance, at Iron Gate, is it totally rude to ask to get a second "garden" option in lieu of the water course? I'd call before just to confirm, but I'm not even sure if asking is somehow committed a faux pas.

Restaurants love it when you call ahead and share your requests. Well, they might not always LOVE it, but in general, cooks appreciate knowing your restrictions ahead of time. Advance notice helps with the prepping and the procuring.

Hi Tom! My partner and I are still in our post pride haze, and just don't have the energy to cook right now. We want to try something new - so what would be your pick ofthe latest openings in the city for a couple of tired guys to try for a nice night out? Grazie!

I'm eager to get back to Partisan, which reminds me how wonderful charcuterie can be (again);  Compass Rose for a cone of fried baby fish and Georgian-style cheese bread; Soi 38 for fried chicken and and the pork curry called gaeng hang lay, everything served in a beautiful setting; and Thally for its vegetarian noodles tossed with lime-brightened yogurt.

I've found that two of the crucial factors in whether I will go to a restaurant are the ease of getting there and the ability to make a reservation. I'm sure Rose's Luxury is great, but I don't want to have to blow an entire evening killing time just to get in the door, and the same with Little Serow. Similarly, I can easily walk to restaurants that I like within my neighborhood. The last time we went to Adams Morgan to try Casa Oaxaca, we gave ourselves more than a half-hour to find parking, but still ended up paying $20 to park in a grimy lot, then hot-footing it over to the restaurant to make our reservation. I would rather spend my time doing something I enjoy rather than wasting the better part of an evening for the privilege of darkening a particular doorstep. If I can get excellent food easily in one place, I'm less interested in blowing the better part of an evening just to try the hot place of the moment.

You know how I deal with the lack of parking in this city? I call my new best friend: Uber, baby!

We went over the weekend, and the service has not improved from your review. Our appetizers were long gone before anyone took our entree order - it seemed like one server was working half the restaurant. Between that, the noise level, and the uncomfortable chairs, we don't see the need to go back. While good, the food was not good enough to compensate for the atmosphere. We decided no one at the restaurant had possibly sat in the chairs for more than one minute.

As I've said before, restaurants would do themselves a huge favor if they tested everything customers are going to use --- stemware, utensils, tables,  chairs, menus (hate those floppy leather binders some places use) -- before committing to them.

Tom, just wanted to let you know we looked at your casual dining postcard from Chicago and had lunch at Publican Meats on Saturday. The food was amazing -- my friend had the pork belly gyro and I had the roast turkey with pickled slaw. Not to mention an excellent dry rose for $5/glass. Thanks for the recommendation and keep up with your travels!

I intend to! Thanks for the postcard back.

To the disappointed Fiola Mare diner - Having worked for Fabio before, what happened was because the chef dictates when courses leave the kitchen, not the server, as is the case with most restaurants. Therefore, if the chef believes it's "time" for the main course to go out, it goes out to the table, whether you've finished your first course or not. Often, guests are left with multiple plates on their table. This ultimately caused me to stop working for his establishment, as the guests naturally assume that it was the server's fault for the bad timing, and tipped badly accordingly.

I'd welcome the chef's take on this. Unfortunately, he's probably on the line as we type.

The answer is: DON'T GO TO THE MALL unless you want to be packed cheek by jowl with several hundred thousand other people. There are going to be no cute empty places to discover since, for every idea you have, there will be several thousand others with the same idea.

My thought, too, but *some* brave souls are going to score the seats at the aforementioned hot spots.

There's an easy answer to that question: the service. I like the food, but my experiences with the service at that location have been uniformly awful. Not even mediocre -- ridiculously bad. Like, wait an hour to get a check after having just a drinks. Like, being offered a spoon when they neglected to bring a fork (and not for a spoon-friendly dish). I will only venture in there if I'm going to sit at the bar at a relatively quiet time -- quiet enough that the bartender might have time to mind customers (eventually), but not so quiet that they might just leave for long stretches of time. But at a table? No. And outside? Never again.

Ouch. Thinking of a particular location? My poor luck has been at the original on Connecticut Ave. and the spin-off in Pentagon City.

Tom, I'd be interested to hear from your restaurateurs who serve foreign cuisine and how they go about proofreading their menus before opening. I speak a few languages and am always finding typos on menus. For exemple, a typo on a French cuisine menu that a native would surely catch but maybe not a person who is not fluent in that language. I have contacted a French restaurant prior to their opening when they posted a preview of the menu on FB and I noticed quite a few typos. I was assured by some PR person monitoring their site that they would be fixed. The restaurant is now open and a few typos remain. What is so hard about having your menu proofread?

Hey, I find typos on AMERICAN menus.

 

When something is spelled incorrectly on a list, it makes me wonder if the cooking crew is equally careless.

 

How do you eat a meringue? You bite into it if it's small or cut with a fork if it's large, and the meringue explodes all over like a powdered-sugar doughnut. I've never ordered pavlova in public because of this uncertainty.

You can always tuck a napkin into your collar. Or (my trick) sit back as the shards fly.

Reading the chat a bit behind real time and see the post about being rushed through dinner at Fiola Mare and then offered freebies. The same thing happened to me about two weeks ago!!! Rushed, then my entree was cold, and completely discombobulated service. I wanted to love it, too, but the overall experience was not worth the money, and I won't be going back.

Hmm. I know the place is busy, but ...

My favorite: A restaurant, I can't recall which, was offering a mesclun salad that, according to the menu, was a "mescaline" salad. Hallucinogenic!

FUNNY!

I know you get this question a lot, but where's your go-to pre-Kennedy Center place for dinner these days? Was considering District Commons or Circa then catching the shuttle for a 7:30 show on Saturday... but open to other ideas!

The nearby Marcel's is good, but you know where I had my best meal closest to the KC stages? On the roof.

Sounds like the manager realized that they'd screwed up with this table and did everything they could to make it better. If I'm being given more food and drink, the last thing I would think is that I'm being rushed. If the entrees were being remade, then it sounds like they were being given something gratis to have during the delay. It is fair to be upset about being pushed to have a mistimed entree; not fair to give the restaurant 40 lashes for trying to make it right.

There's a smooth way to solve problems and a bumpy way. A good manager might intervene and say something like: "It seems you're not fully enjoying the meal. What can we do to make you happier tonight? We appreciate your patronage."

Tom, what are your thoughts on Dan O'Brien's plans to close down Seasonal Pantry and move to Little Washington to open another restaurant? I am going to miss Seasonal Pantry. It was one of my favorite places in the city.

I wish he'd stay put, for selfish reasons.

Curious... why Uber and not a cab?

Uber -- in my experience -- is a cleaner, timelier, less expensive, more pleasant way to get from point A to point B.

We had lunch there this week and I second the timing problems. Appetizers came out fine, but the main course took forever and I had to chase down the check. Lunch took almost two hours. I would have said something, but it was a business lunch and we were trying to impress the person we took out. I didn't want a public argument.

The original Fiola?  In cases like yours, one of the hosts can always excuse himself from the table and let a manager know the check (or whatever) is wanted.

Hi Tom, My 2nd anniversary is coming up, and I want to go to dinner somewhere nice. I'm unfortunately a bit of a picky eater, so I'm always hesitant to try someplace like Komi where I have no say in what I eat. Last year we did Blue Duck Tavern and loved it. I'd appreciate any suggestions. Thanks!

(Thinking aloud: I wonder if restaurants like being flagged as good places for picky eaters?)

 

I think what you're looking for is GFSP: Good Food Served Plain. No doubt you want something with some ambiance, this being a festive occasion.  Try the new Joe's Seafood & Steak downtown, a former bank building with great bones, a VIP clientele and plenty of conservative entree selections.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. See you again, I hope, next Wednesday at 11 a.m.

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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