Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema discusses getting recognized at restaurants and readers help with Virginia Beach eats.

Aug 03, 2011

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.

Hi Tom, Do you know where he went? After such a positive review, I had really wanted to try Cafe Indigo.

  Sebastian Carosi, for those who missed my review of Cafe Indigo in Sperryville last week, left the restaurant after we had photographed him and fact-checked the piece.  I didn't learn about his departure until the column went online and a reader from that neck of the woods pointed me to an item in the Rappahannock News.

 

I was hugely disappointed, of course, and immediately reached out to both the owner, Jerome Niessen, and Carosi.  Only Niessen responded.  Because the restaurant has yet to get its liquor license (hopefully in September), Niessen says the cafe will serve lunch only between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.  He's hopeful of finding a replacement in the kitchen soon. Stay tuned.

 

Good morning, everyone.  Lots to chew over this morning. Let's rock and roll.

Hi Tom- I recently dined at Isabella's new place Graffiato and had a fantastic meal. I thought the whole concept with the share plates, craft cocktails, and all wines by the glass was really cool and refreshing. My question is in regards to the noise level. We sat downstairs and the energy level was great but it was one of the loudest restaurants I've ever been in. I enjoyed the Guns n roses and Zeppelin blaring from the speakers, but as a noise expert yourself, do you think that they may be focused more on creating a scene down there than forming a great dining experience?

My hunch is the chef wants to make good food for a lot of people, and to serve a lot of people, he can't have  "campers."  That's the industry term for diners who linger, or camp out, at tables.

 

One way to keep crowds moving along?  Blast the music. Graffiato's hard surfaces only intensify the noise. There are ways to remedy the situation, but they're costlier if they're installed after construction.

 

Of course, Graffiato was never created to be a restrained setting. I think most people, myself included, like a frisson of excitement when we walk into a restaurant such as Isabella's. Music can support that.

Help! My wedding anniversary is coming up and i'm stumped for places to go. We've been to palena, oval room, 2941, and rasika and liked them all. Any suggestions along the same lines? Extra points for a place that's quiet and won't leave our wallets $500 lighter. Thanks for your help!

Don't overlook Marcel's in the West End, which is all about civility and fine French cooking. Ignore the fact it's underground and check out Vidalia downtown, which tastes better -- more southern -- than it has in years. Another possibility is the supper clubby 701 in Penn Quarter.

are you confident that your first bite can be objective when the the chef/owner/facebook recognizes and serves you, like at rogue 24? how many foams did ya get?

I'm (unfortunately)  recognized in a lot of places these days, but I hope that after decades of reviewing restaurants for this and other publications, I'm able to discern any difference in how I'm treated vis a vis other diners.  

 

I'm pretty sure the staff at Rogue 24 didn't know I was coming. A reliable source overheard  R.J. Cooper telling friends in advance of opening day that I had been trying to get in, unsuccessfully, and that any visit by the Post wouldn't be for at least a month because his  new restaurant was booked. Plus, he added, his reservations maven had all my aliases and numbers.

 

P.S.  I didn't count. But not all foams are created equal.

When dining solo and eating at the "Bar"; do you prefer to stand up or sit on the stools to eat? Personally, I find that standing is preferential - what's your take?

If the focus of my attention is a plate of oysters and some wine or beer -- something quick and easy -- I don't mind standing at the bar. But if I'm eating a multi-course meal, I prefer to be seated at a stool.

 

Why do you prefer standing at the counter?

Hey Tom, I know PG County is more or less a desert of fine cuisine, but a small local Mexican place has really done a great job at producing fantastic food. They're not much on atmosphere, unless you count the bellowing jukebox, or the recently covered up mural of Barack Obama, but the food....it's fantastic. 5 de Mayo is the name, in Landover Hills, MD. Check it out, its better than the other area Hispanic restaurants you've reviewed such as La Sirenita.

Gracias for the tip. I checked out the restaurant's Facebook page, where I spotted a club sandwich and what looked like an ordinary chicken Caesar salad among the photographs, but ... you never know! The official name of the place appears to be Tacos 5 de Mayo.

As a huge Cathal Armstrong fan, I was very much looking forward to dining at Virtue Grain and Feed last week. The restaurant space is fantastic (maybe a little bit loud), servers were good and I was impressed that there were few new restaurant hiccups; but the food was thoroughly unimpressive. I was so disappointed. The Pate Maison was good, but only served with three pieces of bread (a nit), but the Ox Tongue salad was bland, the scallops unoriginal, and the pork shoulder was inedible & tough and somehow was over seasoned (too salty), while simultaneously lacking any flavor. The oysters were good with a great accompanying vinegary smoky mignonette, but they oysters were fairly manhandled and looked like the offending shucker could have been wearing two eye patches and only had the function of two hooks for hands. Arrg. I reread your review and noted that you didn't have too many superlatives in your food review and like others talked more about the space. The Armstrongs should be proud of their beautiful historic reinterpretation of a great space on Union street, but I hope that their food can live up to their reputation, space and high expectations. P.S. Oh and pretty please, I hope that Mr. Thrasher decides to start offering the world's greatest gin and tonic at Virtue or else I will have to get my fix at the Restaurant Eve's bar.

Spoken like a true fan (of both the Restaurant Eve empire and gin & tonics).

 

I haven't returned to Virtue Feed & Grain since my First Bite, but your understanding of  my preview is accurate.

 

Virtue, of course, isn't meant to be an Eve or a Majestic or an Eamonn's, but I think fans of the collection of restaurants expect a concept of similar good taste. (Have you tried one of Todd Thrasher's "hoptails' beer-infused cocktails? They may be the next rage.)

My wife and I dined at Gruner last week during a trip to the cool Pacific Northwest. The alpine-area inspired cuisine was a great change of pace from the food served by restaurants in DC. My wife sopped up every bit of the sauce that accompanied her zucchini & ricotta dumplings appetizer before devouring her entree of mixed grill of rack lamb chops and spicy slovenian lamb & beef sausages. I enjoyed ravioli filled with spinach, beef & pork and my entree of hasenpfeffer. I wish more DC-area restaurants served rabbit! A copy of your postcard has been tastefully matted and framed and hangs in one of the restrooms.

Gruner is a special place, isn't it? 

 

The details are rich:  I love the soft pretzel rolls tucked in the bread basket, the distinctive cocktails made with herbal liqueurs, the check presented in the pages of an old book.  I wish Washington had such an enlightend Austrian-German outpost to recommend.

Think fast: Best hush puppies in the DC area???

Um, um, the last best hush puppies I can recall as I type were those served to me at Sou'wester in the Mandarin Oriental.  They were hot and fluffy and I ate more than I should have. Any careful reader care to expand the list?

Is there any place in Annapolis you would recommend that is not seafood-heavy? I know it's like asking for tacos in Italy, but I thought I'd try.

Lewnes' Steakhouse isn't seafood-heavy and it has the advantage of being ... very good.

Our long-awaited reservations to Rasika are finally coming up this weekend -- I know that we'll probably be quite happy with whatever we order, but is there any item or two that stands out, that we absolutely must try?

Rasika is one of those rare restaurants where you could pretty much point anywhere on its menu and find a winner.  But among the Dishes You Really Ought To Order  are the rice-and-lentil pancakes veined with asparagus, the sweetly spiced lamb chops from the tandoor, the cauliflower spiked with cumin and ginger and the black cod kissed with honey and star anise.

Hi Tom, we reecently made a reservation for dinner at the Majestic for 5:30 on a Saturday via Opentable. I received about three emails reminding me of the reservation. (Early) that Saturday morning, I also received a call from the restaurant, wanting me to confirm that we were still planning on making the reservation. Is this normal now? I'm a little puzzled why a restaurant like the Majestic, which could fill any table with a walk-in in a second, would go as far as waking us up on a Saturday morning to confirm a reservation. We celebrated our anniversary at Restaurant Eve last year, and I don't remember feeling this hounded by a restaurant.

Has anyone else noticed multiple check-backs from restaurants? (I haven't.)  One reason for the duplication might be because some diners fail to honor reservations and restaurants want to make sure their seats are filled.

mr Sietsema, So why dont you review restaruants out this way? If we are lucky restaurants out this way get 2 mentions a year in your First Bite column and maybe 1 review on Sunday! Are their warrants out this way for your arrest? Is there a bias you ahrbor that your eaders arent aware of? Now I cna give you afull breka down of your reviews of the alst 48mos by zip code and lcoation but I submitted that to the Psot's ombudman. You do discriminate. And i doubt you will respond. You need to be termiante beucase of your bias!

And YOU, sir, need to use spell check -- and stop sending me the same darn message every week.

Your bio says you were weaned on a "beige buffet" in Minnesota. What on earth is a beige buffet? It sounds terrible.

Remember that delightful motel restaurant scene in "Fargo," where the police chief played by Frances McDormand meets up with her awkward high school friend?  The backdrop includes a steaming spread of mostly brown and beige food. The collection of food reminds me very much of the buffets of my youth in Minnesota.

In a previous weekly chat (I think over a year ago) Todd Thrasher referenced a set of suspenders that he as well as his staff wear under their slacks to keep their dress shirts from coming out. Can you please point me in the direction of the link or what these things are called so that I can order a set? Thank you.

Considering a shirt garter, eh?

 

  "They keep your shirt down and your socks up," confirms Thrasher, who tells me that all the men on the staff at Restaurant Eve wear the elastic straps. 

 

They are widely available online. Just Google (or Bing) "shirt garters." 

I recently dined at a tapas restaurant in downtown DC, and the table chose the "All You Can Eat for $30" program. The waiter encouraged us to pick 3-4 items per person, and indicated that each would be enough to share, assuring us that the delivery would be staggered. Everything showed up within 5 minutes of each other, leaving a good deal of it cold before tried. The waiter was nowhere to be seen, until he presented the bill, asking, "you didn't want anything else, did you?" Thoughts from the crowd on this?

For several reasons, I'm not a big fan of all-you-can-eat anything. Such "deals" tend to bring out the greed in customers and encourage over-eating. Also, in my experience, the food tends not to be high-quality.

 

But that's not your question.

 

I'm curious why no one in your group tried to flag down the waiter (or any other server) earlier in the meal, to request a slower pace or order more food. 

So is today's First Bite article about Rogue 24 due to the fact that you were spotted there last week or would this First Bite article still have been published today?

It still would have been published today. Rogue 24 is a highly-anticipated restaurant. I wanted Post readers to know a bit about the experience right off the bat.

Do you or the chatters have any recommendations for family/kid friendly restaurants in Virginia Beach? I would like to have at least one or two meals where french fries aren't the only "vegetable". Thanks!!!

 Can any chatters help out?

A group from my office had lunch at Villa Mozart last week, expecting something wonderful based on your's and other's stellar reviews. We were very disappointed with poor service, and average food, and wonder why you liked this place?

 Here's what I was so enthusiastic about. What specifically didn't work for you and your colleagues?

Looks like he has far too much time on his hands, none of which is spent on spelling and grammar-related education. The rest of us think you're swell, Tom. Keep on reviewin'.

Reader to my rescue! Merci.

I'm a fellow midwesterner and I laugh affectionately every time I see that term. At the church-basement lunch following my grandmother's funeral, i was staggered to see lasagna among the hot dishes -- how exotic! A taste reassured me; it was bland enough to be served in any school cafeteria of my childhood.

Love it.

Dined at the Tysons Seasons 52 Saturday with husband, daughter, son-in-law, his parents, & baby in carrier. The food (everything was 475 calories or less) was excellent; everyone cleaned his or her plate and was tempted to lick it! Service was also impeccable. Our server offered to exchange my white napkin for a dark one as I was wearing a dark skirt so I wouldn't get white lint on it! I call that above & beyond! Desserts were the mini-variety and were so tasty. Mine was no sugar added, but it was rich, chocolatey, and yummy! Only complaint was no changing table in the family restroom, but the manager said it has been ordered but has not arrived yet. We will be back. One is coming to in-laws' home town, and they are excited about it. Highly recommend.

Thanks for the mini-review. I thought the area's first Seasons 52, in Rockville, was nice 'n' light, too.

I've noticed more checkbacks in general. A recent Open Table reservation for Redwood (for a non-busy Saturday lunch) came with two emails and a phone call. A weeknight evening reservation at Brasserie Beck, made by phone, got a reminder/confirmation call the day before. At least no one has asked me for a credit card -- yet.

Interesting. I wonder if it's in response to people not honoring reservations. Restaurateurs, care to weigh in?

The Boot in Virginia Beach is was very good when I went there a few years ago. It's rustic Italian with an emphasis on local ingredients. It's relaxed and casual, too.

Great. Thanks for responding.

Cafe Indigo in Sperryville? Now Tom, I'm certainly not one of those "please review only inside the beltway" people. But if you're going to review a place more than an hour away, I would hope there would be something there that is truly unique. Didn't sound that Cafe Indigo fits that bill.

But it was! Did you read the review?

 

I really liked the look of the place, the fact it was set in an arts center and food coop, the concept of a Sunday Supper.  And the food was pretty good.  Plus, there were lots of interesting things to do in the area to make a day out of the adventure.

I generally get one OpenTable email reminder and a call from the restaurant asking me to confirm. Anything more seems like overkill or a software glitch.

I concur.

For a kid-friendly yummy place in Virginia Beach, check out the No Frill Grill at the Hilltop location (or the one in Norfolk). The food is good, it has a fun atmosphere, and I know that kids can get real veggies as side dishes to kid entrees.

Like the name.

Interesting concept...worth one of our rare Saturday nights out?

If you like sliced meat that may or may not be cooked as you ask for it, only a handful of wines to choose from and a meal that might last no longer than most sit-coms, Medium Rare is the spot for you.

Tom--I like your reviews but I think you're not giving the effect of your being recognized the concern it deserves. You say with your experience, you can figure out when you are getting special treatment. That's akin to saying that blind clinical trials are not necessary because an experience clinician will not be influenced by the knowledge of which arm the patient is in. Your statement ignores ample reserach suggesting that your being recognized does affect your treatment and your reviews. So I ask that you reconsider that notion. I wonder, too, if you are so confident being recognized does not matter if you now, or in the future, would abandon any attempts (disguises, false names on credit cards, etc) to disguise who you are. If you believe being recognized does not matter, then you should be open about your identify when eating out for your job.

Fair point (and thanks for writing). In this day and age, when there's so much technology to track people, it's really, really hard to dine under the radar for very long.  And those disguises I use on occasion take at least an hour to apply to look genuine -- time I don''t have and time I'd rather devote to other things. Like writing, or eating!

 

When it's obvious I'm "made" in a restaurant, I tend to point that out. Also, visiting a restaurant multiple times (for a formal review in the Magazine at least)  usually means that  I can experience at least part of one meal without being recognized.

 

I try the best I can.

 

Funny, I was made last night, at a restaurant that I usually write about in a favorable light, and the service was pretty ... dismal.   I got the wrong menu, twice. My first cocktail was straight out of  spring break (too sweet).  And the hovering!  I hope the restaurant is also prepared to serve to every guest the outsized cheese plate I received. I mean, it could have fed a party. 

 

In other words, I'm hardly immune from bad service.

I underdstand what you're saying about using the noise level to discourage "campers" but I think the noise level on the first floor of Graffiato could discourage many customers altogether. I had a wonderful meal there over the weekend and look forward to returning soon. But when I walked in and was greeted by the wall of noise on the first floor I almost walked out. Luckily the second floor is not so loud (and has great music too). Bottom line -- if I could only be seated on the first floor, I would probably head elsewhere.

Thanks for the follow-up. I hear you. (Pun intended.)

One reason for this may be that the reservation was made via Open Table. Typically, I've noticed that I'll get reminders from both Open Table and the restaurant. We dined at Volt recently and received email reminders from both the restaurant and Open Table and a call from the restaurant.

Good point.

Love Chick's in Virginia Beach. Great food - casual atmosphere. Boats tie up outside. They at least have cole slaw and salad. Go! No parking though - valet only.

Chatter, you now have three suggestions.

First is Charlie's on Shore Drive, with the original 50s chrome decor and family when Charlie opened it when he returned from WWII. BEST CRAB SOUP awards every year. Very family freindly. This is old fashioned homestyle southern cooking. But you truely haven't lived til you've had their famous crab soup. (They used to see me coming and bring me a pint of it frozen so I could take it back to my dad in richmond.)

Make that four!

On a recent visit to Woodmont Grill in Bethesda, my wife had a minor choking incident. (All's well; it was resolved quickly and we finished our meal.) When they realized something was wrong, the staff--our server and a manager or two--immediately jumped in, but handled the situation calmly and thoroughly appropriately. Our server remained attentive and let us make the move to treat the situation with after-the-fact humor. The experience reminded me that a well-trained staff will bring me back to a restaurant--and that servers oftentimes have to handle more than food and drinks.

Your post reminds me that I like that place for more than just an easy and affordable meal.

Tom - PLEASE help! A client is coming to town tomorrow and to celebrate settling a big case, he'd like to take me and a couple others out for a celebratory glass of champagne. He's staying at the Westin West End, a neighborhood I don't know that well. What would you recommend? (It was a very good settlement!) Thanks so much!

The lounge at Blue Duck Tavern would be suitable. So might the bar at Marcel's. (Westend Bistro? Way to loud for my taste.)

First time poster wondering if you had any favorites as far as sushi goes? Looking for authentic sushi not the americanized crap.

Not crap, not by a long shot: The raw fish at Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle, Kaz Sushi Bistro downtown, Kushi in Mt. Vernon Square and Sushiko in Glover Park.

I am looking for a good country inn for a leisurely summer dinner within an hour or so of the DC area that would be worth the drive. Bonus if it has historic character....

How about visiting Paris, as in Virginia, and the handsome Ashby Inn?

Dear Tom, My husband and I have a rare night off this Saturday night with both kids out of town, so no overpriced babysitter, no ordering Domino's for the kids before we go out, and no curfew. We live in Potomac and don't mind jumping on the Metro and going into DC. Where would you recommend we go? We're game for just about anything but Indian and would prefer fun and interesting rather than formal and stuffy. Looking forward to your suggestions!

No curfew! No kids! Whoopie!

 

"Fun and interesting" certainly applies to the recently reviewed Ripple in Cleveland Park, and it's right on the Red Line.  Have you been to Estadio in Logan Circle?  Love the Spanish vibe there.

My husband and I are going to Las Vegas in October (my first time, his second). I've been charged with finding restaurants. I am so overwhelmed! How do you and others determine where to go? We're not what I would call foodies, but we enjoy a good meal.

Your restaurant list should definitely include Raku, a Japanese charmer off the Strip, and Jose Andres's two hits in the new Cosmopolitan hotel, Chino Poblano and Jaleo.  Mini-reviews for all three can be found in one of two Postcard columns from Sin City.

 

In advance of my trips to different cities, I reach out to fellow food scribes, cooking schools, well-travelled friends, chefs from all over.  John Curtas is among one of the more informed and entertaining food writers out that way.  He's at Eating Las Vegas.

Tom: We were surprised to see that you had reviewed Rogue 24 in First Bite after it had been opened only one day. Was that truly a reliable test of how well the restaurant is doing?

Remember, today's column is a preview, not a formal critique involving multiple visits over a stretch of time. R.J. Cooper has been working on this idea forever, everyone's talking up the place ... I thought it was fair game.

I haven't laughed so hard for at least a week. Bravo, Tom, for entertaining us and for putting up with this jerk.

Glad to make you laugh on this gray day.

 

The lunch bell is ringing. I'm outta here. See you next week, gang, and thanks for participating.

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 and keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom. His video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
Recent Chats
  • Next: