Ask Tom

Jan 26, 2011

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema answers your questions, listens to your suggestions and even entertains your complaints about Washington dining.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Tom: The proposed Medium Rare with a menu offering just steak frites, salad, bread and dessert appears to be a knock-off of "Le Relaise de Venise," which can be found in Paris, London and NYC. It is a simple (and appealing) concept, but the lack of variety means that you can tire of it quickly. When Le Relaise opened in NYC a few years ago I went three times in the first six months but then abandoned it in favor of similar places offering more variety. Also, I hope the owners of Medium Rare don't adopt the same Gallic attitude. For example, if you ask for ketchup for your frites at Le Relais (or salted butter for your bread) you will either be ignored or get a dismissive eye roll. But I wish the new place well.

"You'll be able to get all the ketchup you want, all the butter you want," at Medium Rare, says creator Mark Bucher.  Far from copying Le Relaise, he says, "we're poking fun of it."   There will be in Washington no servers in "French maid outfits,"  in other words. 

 

Will we tire of the single-dish concept?  Buchers believes otherwise. "I think the trend is simpler."  A lot of diners are "overwhelmed by choices" these days.

 

Happy Hump Day, everyone. I apologize for cancelling last week's show with no notice, but I had to make a major deadline before catching a flight to Sin City, where I got a chance to check out a few new restaurants.

 

Let's begin.

 

 

A note to those that clear tables at restaurants - be aware that there are diners nearby. Clear away those dishes as quietly as possible, don't crash them into a bin. And when you wipe the table, there is no reason to use 10 sprays of the blue stuff. You may not realize how far the liquid can spray, and at the very least the smell of cleaner will radiate over to other diners tables and affect the smells and tastes of their food.

Nothing like a side of Windex with your ravioli, right?

The lighting is the biggest problem with the atmosphere in the dreary new cafe. Adding lots of votive candles would do wonders. And the staff could experiment with different kinds of lightbulbs in the ceiling fixtures -- halogen PAR 25 spots, for instance, could make a world of difference.

You sound like you know what you're talking about. Are you an interior decorator or a light salesman?

 

The biggest complaint about the expanded Palena (well, the cafe rather than the more formal dining room) seems to be the lack of  warmth in the setting. Softer lighting would go a long way to improving the situation.

Hello Tom. If you were a Washingtonian visiting Manhattan alone on a winter weekend, and money were no object, where would you choose to have Saturday night dinner? Remember, I will be sans a dinner companion. Thank you.

There are many answers to that question. If I were in your pumps, I'd probably go with the rethought Del Posto (for grand Italian) or Le Bernardin (for haute seafood by Eric Ripert).  I actually dined at the latter by myself several years ago, anonymously. The experience from start to finish was sublime.

Tom, have you had this problem? The websites of nice restaurants have gotten more and more complicated! Mood music, "enter here" buttons, revolving photos, Too Much Information. If you're discretely checking a menu on line at work, the music is a dead giveaway. If you're on the run with a smart phone, the websites are indecipherable. Please use your bully pulpit to inform restauranteurs that we want to see your hours and your menu, hopefully in a small screen-optimized format. Please, help us out here, Tom. Many thanks!

Having been blinded by flashes, blasted by music and frustated by supposed frills on too many restaurant sites myself, you have my sympathy.

 

There's much to be said for simplicity in design and ease of function. Restaurants should consider following the basic rules for a news story and just offer the who, what, where, when and why of their operation online.

Hi Tom, I'm sure I am in the minority, but I have not enjoyed your guests. First, they take time away from your ability to answer questions. Second, they are boring. All together now repeat after them, "Eat at my restaurant(s) and you will be very happy." Sorry to be a naysayer.

Thanks for your feedback, but didn't you learn *anything* from the three guests I've had on since the new year?

 

I'd like to continue the format. If there's someone you or anyone else would like to hear from, by all means let me know.

Restaurants that serve prime along with telling us if it is organic, humanely raised, wet or dry aged for howevermany days also need to tell the customer what grade of prime the beef is! USDA has 9 yes 9 grades of prime beef. My preference is the top grade of prime, grass fed and dry aged for at least 35 days. Organic works. Define humanley most ranchers know stress reduces weight so raising humanely means more money. But a definition of humanely should be interesting. A herding dog will bite the steer or sheep to get it to move. If you are in the way of a steer or sheep and it needs to get there it will move you out of the way by any means necessary. also sheep and steer will challenge herding dogs. my herding dogs are taught to never back down and teach the offending stock a lesson not forgotten.

Fascinating! Maybe YOU should be my next guest.

I totally agree with Bucher. Somedays I am even overwhelmed by the choice of Coke or Pepsi. I look forward to many visits to Medium Rare!

While we're on the subject, I much prefer a well-edited list of wines (on a sheet or two of paper) to those bibles some restaurants drop on the table with a challenging thud.

Can we do it out in the field with my herding dog working sheep? Friend of mine almost lost his best herdign dog to injuries caused by a sheep. $5k in vet bills later the dog survived. The offending sheep after going after another dog and my friend was executed with a 44 magnum and became dog food.

Oh my. I think I spoke to soon.

OK, I'm old, not hip, etc. so I often find myself left behind in these chats; but where the heck is Sin City?

Sin City -- Las Vegas -- is in Nevada.

I am so curious about where you ate and what you thought.

Hang tight, please. I have a Postcard from Tom planned for the Travel section next month (Feb. 27).

Why no recent reviews of Hook? Especially since they have a new chef since your last review. We went last weekend and had a great time.

Good to know.

 

Hook has had three chefs in the past three years. I want to make sure the recently-acquired Alex Bollinger stays in place before fishing at the seafood restaurant again. Further, I wanted to wait til after Restaurant Week and the roll-out of the chef's new menu.

Oh wise gourmand...I'll be heading to New Orleans to run a marathon next month, and would love some suggestions on where I should celebrate and replenish my depleted stock of calories. No restrictions on food types or $$. However, I'll be down there alone, so the ideal spots would include bar seating, preferably with a game on TV. Thanks!

I don't have time this busy morning to verify if  Stella!, Patois,  Cochon or the new Mondo have TVs or show games, but I *can* tell you they are among some of the most interesting places to fress in New Orleans right now.

Hi Tom - Went to Girasole in the Plains a couple weeks ago and had a fabulous dinner and very pleasant (and romantic) evening…until the check came. We ordered from the specials list, which is presented orally. It did not even occur to me that prices for the specials would be so much higher than anything on the regular menu ($15 appetizer and $42 entrée). What would have been the best way to avoid this – ask the server to include the prices during the spiel or ask the price of a particular dish that I was interested in? Asking about prices seems a little gauche to me… (On a related note, why do restaurants present specials orally? Wouldn’t it be better to print the list – especially one as extensive as the one at Girasole, which included very similar items (e,g, one arugula salad and another baby arugula salad and two separate dishes featuring chestnuts) on the night we were there? That way people would know what they were getting on their plates and in the check. What do you think? Thanks.

I really like Girasole, but the restaurant's dozen or so (!) specials ought to be printed rather than recited, because how many of us can remember more than a few choices  after the speech? 

 

The waiter should have specified the price of the specials up front. On the other hand, there's no shame in a diner inquiring what a dish costs. Better ask than to be unpleasantly surprised, right?

I follow you on twitter and notice that you communicate with some local area chef''s. Recently you visited Jose Andres venture in Las Vegas and there was twitter comments back and fourth- I am assuming that you were there for a review, I may be wrong. If you were how can you remain unbiased with reviews or avoid being treated as a VIP when you have a relationship with the chef? Not implying anythiing, just curious.

Good question!

 

First things first. I communicate with a *lot* of chefs, but usually over the phone or via email. It's part of my job. 

 

Jose Andres and I have known each other for years. (I was a food reporter in another life.) He was out in Vegas, checking in on his two new restaurants at the Cosmopolitan hotel, at the same time I was there. While I booked reservations in names other than my own, he or his staff obviously knew I was at China Poblano and Jaleo.

 

That said, I keep a healthy distance from the people I cover.  If  I'm recognized, I take that into consideration and pay more attention to what's going on elsewhere in the room.  In the end, I feel I can write honestly and accurately about Andres or any other chef  that might know me.

Since you mentioned a few weeks ago that a change of atmosphere might be in your future, can you tell us whether you are grooming a successor, as Phyllis Richman prepared you for your gig at the Post?

I have no plans to retire from this wonderful job.

 

Just fyi: While a four-star mentor, Phyllis didn't get to pick her successor. There was a team of people in the newsroom assigned to interview candidates from across the country.

I was told by a server that there is a picture of you along with the instructions on how to prepare your Manhattan in every kitchen in the City. Confirm or deny?

I've heard there are pictures of me posted in restaurant kitchens, but I've never been able to verify that. As for "the" Manhattan recipe --- well, that's pretty funny.

My husband and I finally want to give pho a try for the first time. Although we like a lot of different cuisines, trying something for the first time is always a little intimidating. Any suggestions on where we should go for the first time where we won't feel silly for not knowing what the heck we're ordering? VA or DC preferred. Thanks!

My new favorite spot for Vietnamese nooodle soup is the tiny, friendly Pho Viet in upper Columbia Heights. No kitchen makes a clearer, more delicious broth, in my opinion.

But weren't you the intern?

I was Phyllis Richman's assistant (news aide) from 1984-1988.  I know she put in a good word for me as she neared retirement, but there were  a dozen other people I had to interview with before getting this job in 2000. (Seems so very long ago.)

Proper dress for men Bombaby Club if you please for dinner if you please?

Nice shirt and pants are fine. You don't need a jacket or tie there.

Unless I am missing something I do not see a complete review of Galileo III form you yet. I find this odd considering the lead up to his return as well as his stature on the resturant secene prior to re-openeing. Can you shed some light on this?

I'm taking my time with Roberto Donna's latest. Not because I think the chef deserves more of a break than the competition -- other new restaurants -- but because I want to make sure Galileo III is going to stick around.

Do you tip on a comped dinner during mock service for a new, but still unopened, restaurant?

Obviously, I don't participate in those "friends and family" events,  to which guests are invited to restaurants for trial runs, but my inclination would be to leave a gratuity. The amount would depend on the length of the meal, how much alcohol was consumed and the state of the service.

 

Curious if anyone in today's audience has ever been to a pre-launch (seated) restaurant dinner and if so, whether they have left a tip?

Tom, I know that the people who cook and serve your food blow off steam in the back by mocking their patrons; I know, b/c like about half of the population, I worked the food service industry (in the kitchen as a line cook and as a bartender up front). Yeah, it's easy to dump on people that seem clueless, esp. if you're in the weeds, the place is slammed, and tables just aren't turning over fast enough, But to go on YouTube and post such snotty, ill-advised, and (worst of all) painfully unfunny sketches really makes me re-think going to Carol Greenwood's place. If they are going to be that stupid about posting stuff that is frankly insulting, then I will take my dollars elsewhere; I hope others do the same.

Um, you're confusing chefs and restaurants here. I believe you're describing Gillian Clark of the General Store in Silver Spring rather than Carole Greenwood, late of Buck's Fishing & Camping and now at Food, Wine & Company in Bethesda. Clark and her partner put some mocking videos on YouTube recently that have angered/alienated customers.

What's the best food you've had there, in a place that doesn't require reservations, and has no dress code?

Check out my Postcard from London. Either St. John or the gastropub are where you want to sup.

Hi Tom-- The cold weather's given me a hankering for a hot roast beef sandwich -- the kind smothered in gravy rather than dipped in jus. Any suggestions for where I might find a good one in DC? Thanks!

My current fave roast beef is in Arlington, at the new Bayou Bakery, where chef David Guas makes a mean "Arm Drip:" shaved meat, onions, gravy, Swiss cheese ... bring on the napkins, baby!

I find that I hate to have more than 10 options on a menu. More than that and I start to have a really hard time picking, which means I'm more likely to be dissapointed in what I pick ("I should have gotten x" when I order y instead). I'm the same with clothes - absolutely hate big department stores. How can you ever see every (ex.) white blouse when there are 50 of them to evaluate in the store. Much prefer places like Ann Taylor where you have 5 blouse choices. Back to restaurants - how can all the ingredients be fresh when they are making 30 different things? How can all 30 be really good? Some of them must be just ok, and I"m not out to buy 'just okay' food at a restaurant. I make really good food at home - no time/money/calories to waste on mediocre.

You're on to something. Fewer dishes allow chefs to focus on making a handful of dishes as perfect as they can be.

 

Thanks for joining me today, folks. See you back here next Wednesday, 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 moderates the Sietsema's Table discussion group. His new video series, Tom Sietsema's TV Dinners, pulls back the curtain on a critic's life -- in and out of the dining room.
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