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

Aug 28, 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.

The Washingtonian's Todd Kliman recently proclaimed that the Red Hen was the best new restaurant in DC. What do you think is the best new restaurant in DC?

I like Red Hen a lot, but it is not, in my estimation, the best of the new crop. I think the even-younger Etto tops it.

 

Etto aces almost everything it makes, and the setting and service are in keeping with the simple and pure cooking there. If only the dining room were bigger! 

 

Le Diplomate is another contender for "best new."  Terrific French food, great service, a setting that's true to its theme ....

 

Happy Wednesday, gang. Thanks for joining me this morning.

Tom, about a month ago, I got an email with an announcement that a well known restauranteur was opening a French restaurant in the area. I went on Facebook and looked at the menu,...which was loaded with misspelled words. I immediately contacted via private message the page owner, who assured me that this was a preliminary menu and that the final would be mistake free. I even offered to proofread the menu as a courtesy since I'm a native speaker, I proofread documents in multiple languages for work and, to me, it is a public service as I can't stand going to a restaurant and seeing typos on menus in any language and I'm sure I'm not the only one......Well, the restaurant opened, the final menu on their website still has numerous typos. The website contact name is the person who answered my FB message so I don't think that contacting her would be productive. What to do?

Gosh, you try to be helpful and no one pays attention, Frustrating!

 

I'd reach out a second time and let your contact know the original typos are still there and, once again, you'd be happy to fix them. On the same email, you should also copy the owner or chef of the restaurant.

 

Restaurants are all about details. A new business loses credibility when it doesn't bother with the seemingly small things (which are in fact big things).

Hi Tom! Your chats are my favorite thing about Wednesday. My husband and I are celebrating our 5th wedding anniversary soon, and it will be the first since our baby was born a few months ago. I'm looking for ideas on somewhere delicious to celebrate. We'd like to be able to hear each other (we don't get too many chances to just eat & chat these days). We are open to most any type of cuisine, but my husband doesn't like most types of Indian food. We love Vermilion, Marcel's & Vidalia for these sorts of special occasions-- is there anything similar that you would recommend? Alexandria, Arlington, Penn Quarter, or Capitol Hill would be best (upper Northwest DC is probably too far for a week night). Thanks!

You've been to some pretty good places already.

 

What about the Bistro at Restaurant Eve in Old Town or the seafood-focused Azur in Penn Quarter for No. 5?  The Hill lacks restaurants that are both good and quiet, while Arlington is missing the "fancy" part of the equation I think you might be seeking.

What are the best places to celebrate someone's 40th Birthday? Where would you take someone?

Before I answer that, I need more details: What is the celebrant's taste, notion of fun, usual hang-outs, ideal georgraphic location? Also, what size group will you be? 

Do you endorse the nutritionally deficient factory foods, steroid/hormone meats and preservative laden staples at the chain restaurants you visited?

Uh, no.  In my defense, I did mention the 2,000-calorie bloomin onion at Outback Steakhouse in my report on chain restaurants last week. At the same time, I failed to mention in the story a decent fresh salad I had at Applebee's, a toss of baby spinach and blueberries that was better than I expected it would be -- even good for me!

Hi Tom, A few months ago, you published a squib from Michel Richard regarding the possibility of his reopening Citronelle in DC. Has there been any movement on that front? I miss that place. This is a First-World, 1%er problem, I know -- particularly on a day like today, with the March anniversary, the death and destruction in Syria, etc.

At this point, I doubt Richard is going to resurrect Citronelle. The French chef is racing to open multiple projects at the Palace in New York these days, foremost Villard Michel Richard.  He has his hands full there, and I get the sense he's over Washington.

Side note: Based on your recent comment about Olive Garden, I suggested eating there this past weekend. My husband grudgingly agreed, and was very pleasantly surprised with the experience. And their less-sweet house red was very drinkable! We're about to go to DC for a week, and although I'd love to sink my teeth into crabcakes and other seafood delights, my husband doesn't like fish and is allergic to shellfish. Ironically (for someone who copped an attitude about Olive Garden), his favorite food is a sandwich, and he's definitely a meat and potatoes guy. So what would you recommend for both nice meals (i.e., where the meat is steak) and casual (i.e., burgers or meatloaf)?

Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons in Georgetown is a splurge, but the kitchen can accommodate both your wishes. Your husband should be happy with the butcher's tender, and you can enjoy rockfish with chermoula and sea beans.

 

On the more casual side, try the new G, a rustic sandwich shop opened by "Top Chef" personality Mike Isabella next to his modern Greek restaurant Kapnos on 14th St. NW.

 

One of my favorite day-time burgers can be found at Central Michel Richard, which has the advantage of being close to the Mall and other attractions downtown.

Dear Tom, Have you discovered Pupatella's Neapolitan Pizzeria in Balston, VA.? If you look at the web site and watch the info. clip you will be impressed before you even step foot in this establishment to experience what could be the best certified (D.O.C.) Neapolitan pizza in the DC metro area. This pizza is created from flour imported from Italy. You can smell and taste the difference from any other certified Neapolitan pizza, including the always talked about 2Amy's. I am surprised that Pupatella's is not on the map of must eat pizza places.

Oh, but it is! Here's my take on one of the leaders of the pack.

Tom, heading to Paris in October. Any word on the long anticipated Paris postcard?

You know what? My trip to Paris in April was kind of a bust, so much so that the best French food I encountered around the time of my visit were my meals right here in Washington, at Le Diplomate -- which should be interpreted as a buss on the cheek for one of our best new restaurants.

 

That said, my most memorable meals abroad were taken in the wine-centric Le 6 Paul Bert and a slip of an oyster bar caled Opium.  For hearty seafood, I also liked Fish La Boissonnerie on Rue de Seine.

I saw this sentence in your review today: "The dining room, trim and neat, looks as if it were flown in from Amsterdam. Pots of herbs catch rays from their perch on the window sill..." Um...exactly what herbs were flown in from Amsterdam? :-)

Hahahaha. Veeeeeery funny.

 

The poster is referring to my exploration of the dining scene in Richmond,  which comes out in print in the Sunday Post.

This. A place near us, which we really like, has scaled new heights (or plumbed new depths) of misspelling on their menu. I've counted four separate ways of misspelling "mesclun." This is the place that advertises fried wantons, which I assume you have to be 18 to order.

Ha!

Made a reservation for Jaleo Bethesda via OpenTable for last Saturday (pre-theater). When we arrived and I gave my name to the host, he made a point of addressing me by my first name three -- yes, three! times and telling the waiter to escort "Mary and her party" to our table. I found this weird, intrusive, and unnecessary. If he had to be so pseudo-friendly, couldn't he have called me Ms. Surname? But it wasn't necessary to call me by name at all. Is this something others have experienced, and can we put a stop to it? Yes, I did mention this in my feedback to OpenTable.

Strange. Note to restaurants: Not everyone wants to hear their name repeated, certainly not three times. Plus, not everyone who checks in at the reservation desk is the actual reservation maker.

There was nothing wrong with that sentence. Please let Tom's syntax alone unless it's actually funny.

Thanks, Mom! (I suspect the original poster was likely equating "herbs" with "marijuana" there.)

I was recently out of town for a month and come back to find three new restaurants open on 14th St. And more to come in the coming weeks. I love all the options but I'm wondering, how many Italian restaurants - of varying levels of formality (rustic fare, pizza, etc) can it support? My last count is five (Piola, Posto, Etto, Ghibellina, M Cafe Bar) and that's not including Matchbox, Homemade Pizza and &Pizza. I feel bad because at one point I figure someone will have to close. and related to that - any chance we'll get some good South Asian food nearby soon?

 My hunch is not all those Italian eateries are going to last forever, certainly not  if  some of them don't  step up with better service or food. And frankly, that would not be a bad thing. There's a lot of mediocrity in Logan Circle.

 

Southeast Asian? Restaurateur Mark Kuller (Estadio, Proof) just this week opened Doi Moi, featuring street food from Thailand and Vietnam.

What would be a good place to celebrate a 1 year anniversary dinner in DC or VA? I want something special, but that isn't going to absolutely break the bank (less than 100 a person even after drinks). The nicer places we've done before that we've liked have been Rasika, Trummer's, and Oval Room. At Bombay Club this weekend, my curry fish was mushy so no to them.

Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan might be too noisy, but few chefs put out a better plate of (French-American) cooking than Cedric Maupillier. The new Casa Luca downtown is good for Italian, while Izakaya Seki charms with its Japanese flavors on V St. NW. That help?

Somewhat silly but it annoys me when I am dining out and ask for more of a beverage ... water, soda, wine and the waiter removes the glass to refill..... usually there's some left in my glass, I would just like more to finish my meal. What is the proper etiquette?

The scene is a little fuzzy to me. If you want more water, the server can simply fill it at the table, right? But if there's a bit of soda or wine you want to keep, you're likely to get a fresh glass of soda or wine.

 

What *I* don't like is when a server pours a second request for wine into a glass that has a little bit left.

Tom- My wife and I dined at Table Sunday night. We are frequent diners in and around the city, understand good food/service, and despite hearing uneven feedback on Table’s service quality, wanted to form our own opinion and visit the popular new restaurant in Shaw. Liked the space, good/interesting wine and food menu, food was good (but not great). But the service was surprisingly lacking. We saw our waitress when she took our order and dropped off the check. (Someone else told us the specials, the food runners were our only other staff contact throughout the night.) No explanation was provided by anyone of the cheeses and meats on our charcuterie course. Our dining neighbors similarly were not given the standard explanation of the origin(s) of their dozen assorted oysters. We then received the bill and they forgot to include our bottle of wine, which just about halved the cost of our meal. (In our opinion the oversight was emblematic of the poor service/coordination.) We told the waitress she forgot our wine and we were promptly presented with a bill correcting the error, adding the full price of the wine, or ~$70. In letting her know of the oversight we simply did what we thought was right, but obviously that helped both the restaurant and the waitress for her tip base. Question: What is the norm for a restaurant/server in a situation where a diner voluntarily corrects a material error that costs the diner money? We may have been sensitive to the murky protocol simply b/c the service was not what it should have been for a restaurant like Table. Thanks. PS-I tried to locate a manager on our way out just to provide some feedback, but from what we could tell there was no non-server/non-hostess working the front of the house on Sunday night.

Table was such a promising place when it opened!  But I agree, it has morphed into something less in recent months. A shame.

 

You did the right thing by mentioning the wine you weren't charged for, but I don't think you were owed anything other than a profuse "thank you!"  from the staff for taking the high road.  That said, it sounds as if the server deserved less than my norm for good service, which is 20 percent.  A 15 percent gratuity sounds more reasonable. 

For Casual sandwich options, don't forget Bub and Pops in Dupont and of course Fast Gourment

Yes to Fast Gourmet. Nothing wrong with Five Guys, either, or Shake Shack, the import from NYC in Dupont Circle.

Hi, Tom, and thanks for your review of the three new restaurants in Richmond. Several cousins scattered across the "central tier" of Virginia (Williamsburg to Charlottesville) try to meet every couple of months in Richmond for dinner. One of us is a vegetarian, and the rest are enthusiastic omnivores, so my question is -- which one of these three delectable options should we try first?

All three restaurants are pretty meaty. Since menus are subject to change, I'd call the establishments (starting with Dutch & Company, the most exciting of the bunch, food-wise) and inquire about vegetarian options.

Also, some of us who have difficult-to-pronounce names have a pseudonym for reservations, ordering coffee, etc. Makes life easier. But another reason to avoid calling customers by their reservation name.

I can relate. I've trained myself to answer to at least 10 different names, none of which are "Tom" or "Sietsema."

That sounds like he's spread himself way too thin and is heading for disaster.

Mr. Richard is very clever when it comes to cooking, not so wise when it comes to business.  But I wish him well. I think he knows that everything has to be perfect for him to open to raves in the Big Apple. It's a tough crowd up there. ( Isn't that so, Mr. Ducasse?)

Tom, I'm not sure what the OP is hoping for by asking what the protocol should be for a restaurant/server omission in the bill. This has happened to me on a number of occasions--in DC and elsewhere--and it would never occur to me to ask what is the protocol? I do it, every single time, because it is the right thing to do. Honesty in itself should be enough of a reward. You ordered the bottle of wine, you drank the bottle of wine, you pay for the bottle of wine. What's so difficult? If the restaurant/server omits it from the bill, you correct the mistake and then hope that they will comp you for pointing out the omission? You deduct a tip from the server because they forgot to include something that you actually ordered? I don't get it at all. Enough said. Apologies if I missed something here. As for Table, I'm sorry to hear that it is sliding, though, not surprised. Before it opened, I had high hopes for what sounded on paper to be a great business model for a new restaurant opening. I went to Table about 3 weeks after it opened, and even at that point, I could see signs of slippage, so I'm not surprised to see that you agree, now months later.

Just to be clear, I agree the diner should have paid full price for the wine. But given the so-so service in general (not just forgetting to add the wine to the tab) , I think the gratuity shuld have been less than 20 percent.

Where would you recommend a group of 6 go for a nice (relatively quiet) Sunday brunch in the Woodley Park/Clevland Park area?

Ardeo + Bardeo, although I have yet to try the cooking from the new chef, Matt Kuhn, late of DC Coast.

Tom - thanks for spending time chatting with us! I want to bemoan a trend my husband and I have noticed the last few times we've eaten out at nice restaurants (including Table and Mintwood Place). I love a nice glass/bottle of red wine but, for me, much of the pleasure is lost when the wine is not served at the proper temperature. I know many of these restaurants don't have sufficient storage; so I believe wine ends up being stored in or near the kitchen, which results in it being served far too warm. What advice, if any, do you have to address this. Should I ask before ordering how/where the wine is stored? I don't want to offend or come across as a snob, but when I'm paying a premium I feel that the wine should be served properly. Thanks!

You can always preface your wine request with, "I like it on the chilled side" if the inventory isn't visible. If the wine is properly cellared, no problem; if it isn't, the server can deliver the bottle in a wine cooler.

Tom, I had an absolutely horrible experience at Etto a couple weeks ago. I'm planning on writing the manager just so she/he knows, but I'm also wondering if I should bother going back. The pizza was just 'meh.' I honestly feel like &Pizza tastes better, and costs significantly less. The ricotta was good, but nothing I couldn't buy at Whole Foods and slap on a plate myself. Is it worth a second try food-wise? I'm willing to chalk up my bad experience to an off-night for the restaurant, but don't want to go back if the food isn't even worth it. Did I just order the wrong thing? Keeping in mind, I am a pescetarian so some options are out for me.

Pizza, which has been consistently cooked and delicious on my visits,  is one of many options at Etto. Did you try the salads? The lobster with chickpeas?

The absolute worst offender in the use of names is Seasons 52 in Tysons Corner. I asked the hostess for a table, she asked for my name. I looked around - the restaurant was nearly empty. I asked if there was a list. She said no - "No - but we have to know what to call you." I said I'd prefer not to be called by name. After I was seated, the waitress was nearly in tears when she discovered the hostess hadn't discovered my name, and I didn't want her to use it. "But it's our POLICY..." The worst part came at the end, however, when I paid with my credit card. Despite the fact that she knew my preferences, the server came back and victoriously announced - "Here's your bill. Thank you, (BRUNHILDE)!" If the goal is to make me feel welcome and at home - and to eat there again - Seasons 52 achieved the opposite.

Policies are made to be broken. If a patron doesn't want his or her named used, what's the harm? On the other hand, it could be fun to use a fake name.

Do you have any comment on the fried chicken and doughnut joints? I've dabbled in some of the new, trendy entries around the city and will confess that I still prefer Popeyes.

I like both treats, but separately. Can't someone *please* open a fried chicken and kale salad joint? You know, for those of us who might want to indulge but balance out a splurge with something healthful?

Ripple does brunch now, and it's great. I want to go back just for the little skillet of cinnamon rolls...

Yes to Ripple. Although I'm kind of tired of seeing the same dishes on the dinner menu.

We live in the Balitmore suburbs and have recently noticed a new trend in the area where fairly upscale restaurants in Baltimore such as Woodberry Kitchen either limit the amount of reservations they take for any given night or take no reservations. Unforturnately, we are often not able to attend these restaurants as we want to either assure minimal wait times when we have the kids with us or need to pay for babysitters and do not want to burn through extra time as we try to get seated. What are your thoughts on higher end places that don't take reservations. I sometimes feel that by not taking reservations, restaurants are trying to decide who should and should not be their clientele.

I personally hate it when restaurants don't take reservations. This is a city of planners, and I'm one of them. To me, not taking reservations smacks of arrogance: "We're so hot, we don't need to book tables." 

I don't get it. Why so hot and bothered about using your name? This is more of a first world, 1%er problem than wondering why Richard has left us.

True, it's a First World problem, but ... we're in the First World, you know?

I've always wondered what drives a customer to email the restaurant after an unsatisfactory experience. Why not address it at the time? What do you want the email to result in? Are you looking to just inform the restaurant or do you want something for free? I work in the industry and I know that the majority of restaurants will work hard to rectify the situation, or find a dish that suits your tastes buds, if we are given the opportunity. Our ability to help you diminish once you walk out the door without saying a word.

Preaching to the choir!

 

Folks, if you have a problem with a restaurant, address it while you're still in the restaurant -- and while the staff can do something to correct the wrong. There's a civil and discrete way to approach almost any dining concern. 

We were at a Thai restaurant in Arlington and the spring rolls were inedible. I sent them back after 1 bite. The restaurant charged for them and when I complained to the waitress, she would not take them off the bill. What should I have done?

You should have asked for a manager and said you couldn't eat them.

Hi Tom! I too always find it horribly awkward when they use my name out loud when escorting my party to the table. As one in transition, I often need to use my (still) legal name with the reservation for credit card purposes, even though inside I have adapted to my new female name.

I'm going to let this post pass without comment.

I'm sorry that I'm a grumpy old person, but if I'm old enough to be the server's grandparent, I do NOT appreciate being called by my first name. If you want to use my name, I'll give you my surname, thanks very much.

"Right this way, Your Excellency!"

My partner and I always leave both of our names when making a reservation. This is in part to signify equality within our relationship, but also because it's easier for me to hear a longer announcement at my advanced age. My name is Siegfried, and his is Fulgencio. Last week at a restaurant (to remain nameless!) the hostess giggled a bit while calling our names out. Wouldn't you think she'd have heard lots of odd or unusual names serving as a hostess at a major restaurant in such a cosmopolitan city like DC by now? I must say we often joke that we sound like a Vegas tiger and magic act, so I didn't complain, but hostesses and servers should probably be aware of how they behave. It was a great meal,by the way; having a bit of a sense of humor always helps things! Thanks, Siegfried S.

Have to be honest, and no offense, but I'm laughing at the mental image in my head.  (Folks, I do not make this stuff up.)

Why do restaurants set policies like this? Why do they think they have to pretend you are their personal friend, instead of practising simple courtesy, which includes not being presumptive? It's perfectly simple to distinguish between courteous service and pretension.

What about using (take your pick) "sir" or "ma'am?"

I have only written to an owner once as I prefer to deal with it with a manager at the time of the issue. This one exception was because the manager was a huge part of the problem, and I wanted to let the owner know what that manager was saying/doing as a representative of both the owner and the restaurant (it was bad.) I prefaced my email by saying I would not be back and did not want anything free, but that I was merely writing because if I owned a restaurant and had put my name and money on the line, I would want to know what was going on at that restaurant when I was not there. The owner was so bothered by the incident (after checking into the situation) that he emailed back offering to host me as his guests. I thanked him but declined - because even though it was not about the food (which was fine) the situation still left a really bad taste.

Thanks for writing. As I stated earlier, MOST dining problems can be dealt with within the restaurant, but I can see where your issue made for an exception.

 

That's it for today, folks. Enjoy the long holiday. I'll see you here again  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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