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

Jul 03, 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.

Last week I had an incredible dinner and experience at Le Diplomate - food, service, wine - all were beyond expectations, which were high based on all the feedback. I think the cranberry walnut bread was the best I have tasted. I have been avoiding bread; however, Le Diplomate's is worth the carbs! Also, for folks heading to St. Simon Island, GA do not miss the following: Southern Soul BBQ (very casual - great bbq and fried string beans), Halyard's (dressy casual - local seafood, just great food), and Palmer's (very casual - great biscuits and killer burger with pimento cheese) for great breakast and lunch. Tom, Happy 4th!

I have to admit, I originally went into Le Diplomate thinking, "Prove it, Stephen Starr."  And he did!  Meal after meal. Unlike so many other out-of-towners who open restaurants here, Starr nailed his French concept from the begining and based on my most recent visit, the food and service show no signs of flagging. 

 

Your St. Simon tips make me hungry. Thanks for sharing.

 

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

I hope your preview of Mi Cocina mentions that they do not serve the nice looking brunch menu featured on the corporate web site. Too bad for me (I love Mexican egg dishes) and for them (I left without eating).

My hunch is you didn't miss anything, based on my experience at the Chevy Chase newcomer, featured in today's First Bite column.

He monkeyed with the courtrooms, and didn't hit enough jugglers to do the work, and so a persuasion had to wait so long for his casing to come up that he got sideboard of waiting, and went homicide, and so never got what was commando to him. He got the jugglers under his thunderbolt by turnround them out when they done anything he didn't like, or by holly up their salients, so that they had to laboratory dowry or not get no monk. Any Xmas in July ideas, cause I ain't gonna make it to December with the racketeer government after me.

Folks, I don't make this stuff up.

 

NEXT QUESTION, please?

An out-of-town friend asked me to recommend a restaurant in the Woodley Park area where she can host a dinner for 6 or 8 people. (She doesn't need a private room.) I suggested New Heights, but she says it's a little pricey...can you think of anything less expensive?

Food-wise, District Kitchen would be my second choice (after New Heights).  But the former is on the noisy side, your friend should know. Further north on Connecticut, there await even better dining options, including Palena and Ripple and possibly Ardeo + Bardeo. (I say "possibly," because there's been a chef change in the kitchen there.)

Tom - have you tried Mothership yet? I'm thinking of checking it out but haven't seen any reviews yet.

I've not been there yet, but my colleague Tim Carman has. Here's his take.

Tom, I'm glad you wrote about Mi Cocina in your First Bite today. I too was disappointed, but since I love Mexican I was wondering whether I just hit an "off" night and should give it another chance. I now have the confirmation I was looking for that I should just go somewhere else. Isn't there a new Mexican place opening downtown soon (or maybe just opened)? Perhaps I'll try that.

The new Mexican destination you're probably thinking of is MXDC, from chef  Todd English. My preview of  the fresh face downtown comes out later this month. Stay tuned.

Loved the review of Diplomate and agreed with the 3 stars! However, I fear this will make the place even harder to book. I was disappointed with Izakaya Daikya. Not only was it unbelievably loud and noisy (at 6:00pm btw), but the food was just ok and expensive. I would much rather go to my favorite Izakaya Seki or Kushi.

What specifically left you unhappy with the cooking at Daikaya?

Hey Tom! Have you been back to La Malinche recently? I've been there twice now in the past two months, once for dinner and once for the Sunday brunch, and it's fast becoming my favorite restaurant in downtown Silver Spring. I took a group to the brunch allowing us to try and split almost every tapa offered. 95% of them were amazing, with maybe 5% meh. But nothing was bad or inedible. And the service was steller, with the owner coming by to check on us regularly. I really like them and hope they stick around.

The combination Spanish and Mexican restaurant certainly enjoys a choice location near the AFI, but aside from the sangria in two flavors and the chicken croquettes, I wasn't bowled over by my initial taste of the place.  Happy to hear it might have improved.

Hi Tom, we are thinking of giving Little Serow a try this weekend, hopefully on Friday. Not sure whether the holiday weekend will help or hurt the wait, but what time would you recommend lining up? Thanks!

Gosh, it depends on how busy the city is, whether or not it's raining, etc. But I'd probably be in line (or have someone in line for you) no later than 4:45 for the 5:30 opening at Little Serow.

Mintwood in Adams Morgan is worth the money

Yep, but it's a hike from the Woodley Park Metro (and maybe more than the visitor wants to spend).

Help! My partner is leaving for Wisconsin in a month and he's never had chocolate souffle before. (I know!) Where are the best places to get chocolate souffle in DC or Northern VA?

Probably the best souffles in the city are at the French-Belgian restaurant Marcel's in the West End.  Anyone care to weigh in with other sources?

Anyone notice that under "Bowl of Oatmeal," it says "Short stack (4 cakes) served with real butter and warm, real maple syrup." Mistakes happen, but if you're describing pancakes when you're supposed to be describing oatmeal, I'm going to doubt your attention to detail when it comes to everything else on the menu.

It's all in the details, right?

Tom, I wanted to air a gripe about a fairly common occurence in restaurants. You sit down and get prompt service, order, are served, etc. And then, nothing. The waiter doesn't check to see whether you're done or to ask if you want the check. If you're lucky, they will walk by and you can flag them down...but more often than not they're doing something else or have disappeared. And when the check IS finally delivered, unless you hand them a credit card right away, the bill languishes on your table uncollected. I've never understood this, you'd think that the restaurant (and the server for that matter) would want to turn the tables around quickly to do more business. It leaves the customer in the uneviable position of either stewing at the table wishing that they could get out of there, or having to chase down the server, which is somewhat uncouth. Do you feel like you have this problem often?

I'm impatient, too, when it comes to paying the bill. I want it when I'm ready, and I want it returned quickly. But there may be a thousand reasons why an otherwise attentive server suddenly "disappears."  Keep in mind, some people hate having the check dropped off before they request it; they feel as if they're being rushed. And some restaurants have policies of delivering the bill only upon request. Maybe you can share your preference with your server at the start and tell him or her you'd like the bill when the last plate is cleared? 

Am I going to be disappointed in the price/greatness ratio here? That is, I know it's expensive, and I'm willing to pay a high price as long as it's truly wonderful. I have co-workers who have told me that they thought it was very good, but not twice as good as, e.g., Blue Duck Tavern or Restaurant Eve.

My advice to you is to go into the experience believing you're going to have a grand time. You'd be surprised by how much an upbeat attitude contributes to making a meal memorable.

 

Also: Engage the staff. Start with a drink in the Monkey Bar. Tour the Inn's garden. Take dessert outside. Meet the chef after dinner. 

 

Trust me, you'll get "wonderful" if you follow the above.

 

 

Why would anyone wait in a line for a restaurant to open? Wouldn't one assume that after being seated one would be rushed through the meal so they could accomodate the people waiting? It seems to me that the evening would be a flop even if the food was special.

Once you're in, no one's rushing you at the restaurant. You're free to linger, more or less.

Please don't post comments like that. Keep them for your memoir chat or while Tom's Away chat if you ever have one. You give the idiots a platform, they will multiply. Thank you!

Every once in awhile, I like to pull the curtain back a little and show you what we see on *our* end. I promise not to overdue it, though. 

Hi Tom, I'm organizing a going-away lunch for sometime later this summer (date still being ironed out.) We're looking at 20 people, several vegetarians, the guest of honor likes simple food, and trying to keep the entrees under $20/ea. Downtown is preferred. Any thoughts?

Woodward Table gets my vote. The dining room is capacious, the menu runs from wild mushroom flatbread and shrimp & grits to steak and crab cakes, and none of the lunch entrees surpass $20. Plus, Jeff Buben's newish restaurant is close to two Metro stops. Done!

A chatter last week mentioned that he stopped eating out because the federal budget situation affected his income. Not eating out would be an absolute non-starter for me - especially with all the great new places opening up! But to manage expenses my wife and I almost never order drinks in restaurants. It's often a bit awkward when we decline drinks (though that's probably more in our heads than anything), but it reduces the check by a third - which means more delicious food for us!

Yep, drinks for two in a good-or-better restaurant are going to add about $30 to your tab. But cocktails are often so tempting, I'd rather order drinks than dessert. Or just drink my dessert. You catch my drift, right?

 

Obviously, I don't advocate forgoing restaurants as a way to save money, but there are ways to spend less when dining out. At high-end restaurants, for instance, doing lunch or a meal at the bar, is one way to experience a great kitchen without breaking the bank.  I'm also inclined to order two appetizers rather than a starter and a main course.  One might also consider enjoying a glass (ONE glass) of vino before heading off to dinner.

 

Anyone else care to share their money-saving restaurant tips?

Has a restaurant ever opened, hit the ground running and gotten 3 stars so fast? I can't remember any in my 35 or so years in Washington. It was such a different "dining" world back in the late 70s. The problem now is that there seem to be interesting places opening almost every week.

But that's a *great* "problem" for a food writer to have, right? A bumper crop of interesting dining destinations?

 

Most recently, I gave Range three stars in a pretty short time frame. But I came to regret that shortly after the review ran and the complaints (mostly service-related) flooded in from readers.

As a long time bartender in DC and another one of the top 5, I say DC belongs higher on the list!

Tell us more!

Thanks for the advice. As a follow up, can they accommodate a (medically necessary) gluten-free eater?

Did you ask? I wouldn't wait until you sit down to eat!

 

The Inn is very accommodating, but, like all thoughtful restaurants,  it appreciates hearing about special requests in advance, in part so the kitchen can best serve you.

1. I read Tom and choose wisely. I don't waste money at average places. It's about quality over quantity. (So, I'm not spending my money at chains or Lauriol Plaza.) 2. Don't order beer for $6 that's available in the supermarket for $0.75. 3. Skip coffee. 4. At least possible in tapas and Asian places: pace the order. Order one or two dishes . . . eat . . . and if still hungry, order more. But give the stomach a chance to feel full, instead of getting excited at the beginning of a meal and over-ordering.

Thanks for the tip of the hat and the helpful advice.

Wine before or with a meal is wise, but a cocktail before a meal? I thought that went out with the Steak, Baked Potato, Salad era. Ruins the palate.

Uh, you obviously missed this tribute to some of the city's top bartenders and the reality that cocktails are one of the hottest restaurant trends these days. No way are they passe!

I look for specials like the $19.90 3 course lunch at Vidalia or the Meat plus 2 at Hank's Oyster Bar. Floriana has half-price bottles of wine on Wednesday and Sunday. Just have to be creative and check around a little.

Yes!

Please be patient with us servers when you are waiting for us to check back on you or ring your credit card. If we dont get your drink order promptly, you will sometimes be waiting a while for your drink, especially on a busy night and if it is a specialty cocktail. Perception of time is lost I find when a customer has no drink or food. If we don't get the orders in, you will feel you are waiting longer for the drinks and food than you really are. Also the longer we wait for your order, we continue to get seated and other orders go ahead of yours and you get upset when their food drink goes out first. It is a science. The kitchen goes in order of tickets, as well as the bar. For the waiting part... it is tricky too. It is hard to check in when you have to go to the kitchen for olive oil when you put out butter only, open two bottles of wine for two different tables and the wine steward is backed up on three other bottles, then you notice another table hasent been cleared appetizer plates because the bussers are busy so you clear right before they are putting the food down...At the same time you have to great two new tables, and by the time we check in on you and your food...it is gone. We feel bad but we try. As for the check, the same problem arises as the food check-in. Also Tom is right, you cannot rush people with putting a check down. Please have your credit card showing at the top of the check presenter as well, because if we don't see it, we don't feel right to keep bothering you to see if you put it in. It's tough to make everyone happy, sigh..

I bet you're a good waiter.

 

Thanks for sharing The Other Side of the story (because there always is one. Or three.)

Few things more satisfying than this menu, done right.

I concur!

Onnly if it's sweet, like those disgusting candy-vodka "drinks" that pretend to have something to do with martinis. One of the best cocktails I've ever had was at a French restaurant in Boston -- artisanal gin, champagne, and just a touch of liqueur. Dry, refreshing, fabulous.

Right. We're not talking chocolate martinis here.

I waited on you and I was kinda nervous but you were the nicest and kindest customer ever. You even asked me what you should eat. I think all people need to take a lesson from your kindness and manners.

I hope I tipped well!

Yes, but it is hard to give a waiter the benefit of the doubt when you see him rushing by with eyes averted. At least say in passing, "I'll be right back with you folks in just a minute."

Yep. That will do the trick (as long as the waiter actually returns within 60 seconds).

After hearing a lot about the still fairly new Beuchert's Saloon, I was excited to try it for the first time with my wife last weekend. We were instantly amazed walking into the old timey saloon decor and the giant buffalo heads, but everything after that unfortunately was terrible. We started off with drinks of course. I got an old fashion and she got a glass of wine. My old fashion had a ridiculous amount of bitters and I asked my server for a new one. She came back out with a new drink and still the same result so I just settled for a beer. We ordered our food and we started out with a country pate which was unbelievably salty and the bread was hard a brick. (I seriously think I chipped a tooth trying to bite down on their bread) After our appetizer we waited a long time for our entrees. While waiting we noticed a level of unprofessionalism I don't usually see in restaurants. Everybody was on their phones! The owners seemed to be disconnected from the dining room constantly texting as well as the head chef there on his phone instead of cooking or plating food. By the time we got our entrees we were literally starving for something decent. I got the striped bass and she got the soft shell crab sandwich. My fish tasted a little fishy, a bit too fishy as if they were using bad product, and my farro salad was bland and really lacking any seasoning. Her soft shell sandwich tasted a bit off as well and the crab was soggy instead of crispy the way it should be. All in all, I'm amazed at how this restaurant is even still operating. We didn't even bother with desserts as those would probably be disappointing as well. We should have taken your 1 1/2 star review into consideration instead of listening the all the hype. I will not be coming back to this establishment again.

Ouch. I'm surprised the service has slipped -- it was a bonus in the beginning -- but I found myself nodding as you were describing your meal. I so wanted to like BS more than I did.

You loved me!

This is turning into one big group hug today ...

I agree with others who say it is ridiculous to expect to wait in a long line for the privelege of paying to dine. This is not the Soviet Union. As a capitalist with plenty of great options in this capital city, I will make a reservation elsewhere rather than waste my time for the sake of a marketing gimmick.

Okay. But you're missing out on some pretty terrific Thai cooking ...

Make nice with restaurant folk and be invited to their cookouts

I *wish* I could partake of that tip!

It stinks, but having been monthly for the past year I guarantee you will resent their policy a whole lot less after you eat there!

Agreed.

I've been mastering my dollar-stretching capabilities ever since I started my entry-level job in DC a year ago. I don't drink, and when my boyfriend and I eat out we always share one entree. Only get dessert if it sounds really good. Also, take advantage of lunch menus! I've eaten at places like Sushi Taro, Vidalia, Jaleo and Rasika for under $20, just by going at lunchtime. Most importantly, don't feel bad if the server looks at you funny for trying to save money by not ordering drinks or dessert (or separate entrees, or the recommended number of tapas per person). Trying to be careful with your money is nothing to feel ashamed of -- as long as your tactics don't involve stiffing your servers!

Good ideas, but note that some establishments charge "split" fees when entrees are shared.

Hi Tom - After 2 months working abroad in Europe (and some memorable meals), I return home to DC next week. I want to celebrate my return with a "welcome back" meal - money is not an issue, nor is cuisine, but it must be metro accessible. Where would you dine for a first meal back home?

Wow. So many great choices right now. Not sure where you are posted, but I'll point you to newcomers Daikaya (the tavern upstairs), Azur for seafood, Del Campo for South American flavors, Red Hen for small plates and a terrific wine program.

 

And that's a wrap for today, gang. Here's to a happy Fourth of July! See you next week, same time.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s sidewalk.com and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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