Ask Tom

Jun 09, 2010

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.

TODAY'S DISH: The local Whisk Group and Abdo Development have partnered to bring a two-course Italian menu to Logan Circle. Italian Shirt Laundry, named for the long-ago business it replaces at 1601 14th St. NW, will be a combination pizzeria and bakery; the slightly more upscale Italian Cinema, expected to replace Abdo's current office at 1404 14th St., NW, will serve pasta, charcuterie and, as the title suggests, Italian films screened against a wall on the restaurant's roof.

Leases have been signed and blue prints have been drawn. Mark Weiss, the owner of the Whisk Group, which recently opened the British-themed Againn downtown, even has a chef in mind for the Italian concept. All the partners need to move ahead is final approval from the city, which meets tomorrow night to discuss the permit.

When might the two establishments open? Weiss is aiming for this year.

 

I was out of town last week when two prominent chefs made headlines, both of them sad.

 

Francois Haeringer, the 91-year-old keeper of the flame at L'Auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls, which I had just re-reviewed for my spring dining guide, died on Thursday after a fall at age 91. His funeral, open to the public, will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Catherine's Church in Great Falls.

And Roberto Donna, the veteran Italian chef poised to open Galileo III downtown, pleaded guilty to failing to pay more than $150,000 in meals taxes to Arlington County at his now-defunt Bebo Trattoria in Crystal City.

Donna told me yesterday he is proceeding with plans to open his restaurant in the former Butterfield 9 space, hopefully by the middle of next month. When I asked him about the inactivity at the space in recent weeks, he told me he stopped work on the project to take care of his current legal mess. Has he lost investors since the news of the felony? The chef claims the opposite: that he now enjoys "more support"

Lots to chew over today. Let's get started.

PF Chiangs, Buca di Beppo, Cheescake, Fridays, Tuesdays, Appleby's, Daily Grill, Fogo de Chao. If you had to go corporate for a casual (NOT critiquing!) which ones would you prefer????

Probably Fogo de Chao, the Brazilian steakhouse.  The meat is good and abundant; the salad bar stretches to 30 or so choices; and the gauchos (sword-bearing waiters) are hyper-diligent.

 

I unexpectedly found myself at the bar at an Appleby's in Albuquerque last weekend. They make a respectable Manhatten, but the huge plates of fried or cheese-heavy glop that my neighbors around me ordered looked seriously unappealing.

 

Tom, I love your chats. I recently spent a long weekend in Savannah and used two recomnendations from your recent postcard. Both Elizabeth and Local 11 Ten were great. So, I love your postcards too! I noticed it was fairly easy to find restaurants that featured local, organic and/or sustainable food in Savannah. It seems like there are a good number of options in the DC area as well. Have you ever thought of doing a guide or a feature on restaurants that feature local, organic and/or sustainable food? I would appreciate it and I think a lot of other would as well. Again, thanks and keep up the great work.

Thanks for the idea.  But you know what? I think most of our creative chefs are on the " local and sustainable" bandwagon, and they have been for awhile now.  For a quality restaurant to open in 2010 and *not* follow such a philosophy would really be foolish. 

 

Happy to hear my suggestions for Savannah are still good!

Tom, just a tale of recent experience that left my husband and I frosted and shaking our heads about how "policies" seem to trump good judgment. We were in Philadelphia to assist our son as he and his family prepare to move, and decided to go to a pub in a popular, upscale neighborhood where we could have a kid-friendly and casual meal. Our son dropped us and our toddler grandson off, so we could grab a table while he picked up our daughter-in-law. But when we went inside, the waitress told us we could not be seated until our entire party was there. The place was lightly populated early on a Wednesday evening -- no lack of tables. And, unlike the kind of situation this policy is undoubtedly intended to address -- busy friends joining others for a casual meal after work, coming from disparate parts of the city and maybe not showing up at all? -- we were waiting for the child's parents, for Pete's sake!! The waitress just smiled, and repeated that it was "their policy." She told us we could wait in the covered side patio, but we went outside and walked around until our son arrived. When he did we had our meal, but I never could warm up to that waitress. Ultimately, I paid for the meal and my son covered the tip -- a good solution, 'cause I wasn't feeling too generous at that point! But the real reason I'm venting here is because I just perceive this as an example of a "policy" that surely could have been bent under the circumstances, ensuring happier customers and with no loss to the pub. In fact, we might have eaten and drunk MORE if we'd been seated right away. Ironically, because my son is moving, none of us will EVER be back to that place!

 If you read my preview of Buddha Bar today, you'll see I'm no fan of the off-putting rule, either.

 

Unfortunately, some bad apples out there ( I'm talking about diners now)  have ruined it for the rest of us because they insist on being seated, a few at a time, and end up camping out for way longer than expected because others in their group are late for whatever reason.

 

Just to be clear, it sounds as if your son wasn't mere minutes from returning with your daughter-in-law? That he was picking her up someplace far away?  I can sort of sympathize with the restaurant on that one -- he wasn't just parking nearby --  although if the dining room was truly as vacant as you described it, the hostess should have let you be seated.

 

I'd appreciate hearing from others, particularly restaurant types, on the subject.

Tom, please help some newbies. My husband and I are going to Zaytinya for the first time. How does it work? Do you order one mezze at a time? Several? Any recent updates or things to try/avoid? Thank you!!

 Zaytinya specializes in mezze, or small plates.

 

What I typically do is order a few dishes at a time, since the food comes out quickly, and I keep ordering a dish or two until my group is sated.  (If you order everything at once, the chances of your being done with your meal in less than 20 minutes is too high. )

 

Dishes I'm always drawn to include the raw kibbe, just about any of the dips, falafel, lamb chops and the meat specials.  But there are very few miscues among the dozens of choices.

Hi Tom! I would love a suggestion on a location for a birthday dinner for a young professional couple in from out of town this weekend (so no places with weeks-long lead times), staying in Foggy Bottom. I'm supposed to be the "local in the know", and I've only got one chance...can't mess this up!! I'd appreciate your help. Thanks!!

Kushi in Mount Vernon Square  is hot, hot, hot, but you have to like Asian flavors and put up with a bit of noise to enjoy the place.

 

701 has a new look and a new chef, Adam Longworth, whose creative American cooking I really admire.  The restaurant overlooks the Navy Memorial (fun for an after-dinner stroll).

 

The sleek Corduroy, across from the convention center, always impresses me. Eating there has the advantage of being close to after-dinner drinks at the newish Passenger nearby.

 

Hope those ideas help.

 

Hi Tom! Submitting really early this time. Do you know where I can get banh mi for lunch here in downtown DC? I work near Metro Center/McPherson Sq. Thanks in advance.

Can anyone help a chatter get his/her Vietnamese sandwich fix in the city?

Did you delete a tweet yesterday because it might have revealed a bit about what you look like?

Ha! I deleted a Tweet yesterday because I thought, in hindsight, it was silly.

Follow Tom on Twitter.

When I click on the link to the chat from the WP home page, it sends me to the June 2 chat. Might want to get that fixed...

We have folks working on the problem as I type. Thanks for your patience.

Dear Tom: I was at a local semi-upscale eatery last night after work, catching the later innings of the Strasberg/Washington Nationals pitching debut, and enjoying the best roast beef sandwich I have ever eaten, worth every penny of its $14, a glass of Brut and possibly some dessert. Wow. Unfortunately, some older men came in and got the server to change the channel one the sole TV to the basketball playoffs! I had told the server I was there because of the game when I arrived, and fortunately, it was a "come for the game, stay for the incredible food" situation. The gentlemen asked whether I was a basketball fan, and I replied rather frostily, "I am a baseball fan; I was watching the game" since the channel had been changed at their behest. No budging on their part, and one of them even started to tell me why it was such an important game, and then said it was over (after Strasberg had left the game). I replied, again rather frostily, "Baseball games usually last 8 1/2 innings at least; this one is actually not over." I am a woman; it was a bit patronizing. Do you just suck it up when this happens? It was a small place. I told the manager what happened, and she told me I should have told the server to change the channel back; I don't think so--?

Last night's baseball game was major news. I can't believe  the men that followed you 1) asked to switch channels and 2) got their wish so easily. 

Bad men. Weak server. Unhelpful manager.

 

What sayeth the gang?

What is your solution to a wobbly table due to a leg or foot of said table not touching the ground? Are you a sugar packet kind of guy or do you have something more clever?

It depends on the restaurant. I've used sugar packets, match books (harder to find these days, obviously), thick paper napkins, doubled-over Style sections ...

"I unexpectedly found myself at the bar at an Appleby's in Albuquerque last weekend." Should we be anticipating a Postcard from Albuquerque (/New Mexico)? As a fairly frequent visitor, I'd be interested in hearing your perspective.

Actually, I was en route to Santa Fe (and yes, there's a Postcard from there on the horizon).

That is really weak. A lot of my friends are saying you've been off your game lately -- both in the chats and in your columns. I've tried to defend you, but it's getting tough. Step it up!

I'm working on it, I'm working on it. I was hoping to hear from a source re: some food news and delayed the 11 a.m. start as a result.  My apologies. 

Bad men, weak server, unhelpful manager - yes. But how hard is it to turn to the server and say "I'm sorry, but I came here specifically for the game. Mind switching it back?" Guarantee s/he would have realized it was an oversight (probably busy) and turned it back. People get so huffy about other people, but then aren't willing to take a small step to rectify the situation. It's not that big of a deal!

I agree, a little (civil) push-back would probably have been  appropriate.

If that had happened to me when I had told a server or bartender I'm there for a specific game, I would have left without paying. I was moved at a certain sports tavern from one TV to another for a hockey playoff game when I had called ahead and asked if they would have the sound on. The bartenders tip reflected my animosity.

 Restaurant workers, are you paying attention to this?

Sometimes you can adjust the legs to fix the table. Other times just moving the table and inch or two will fix it. Or if the service is really bad leaving the chump change for the tip under the table leg works for me with a note to the server.

Some of us need those quarters for parking!

The baseball fan should have spoken up when the channel was changed and told the server that she was watching the game and that the channel should not be changed. If the server would not, she should call the manager over. A television channel should not be changed if a patron is watching it. First come, first served. The channel can be changed after the first patron leaves. After the fact, I'm not sure what the manager could have done. If the patron did not speak up at the time, what did she expect to happen?

Fair point. People have to learn to speak up.

Tom, what's the feed back on the new way the feed back is presented online. Personally I can't stand it. When reading it causes the eye to start and stop too much. It was much easier to search, scan and make a quick read as it was presented before.

I'm afraid we all just have to get used to it. (It's slowly growing on me.)

Well said, Tom. I am not a big sports fan myself, but treating a patron who was watching a game (or anything else, for that matter) that rudely is just beyond me. Have to believe there was some sexism going on there.

I thought it. You stated it. Thanks.

G St. Food has one but I've only been back once since Mark left and it was not as good as I remembered.

I think it was mishandled by everyone involved, including the person watching the baseball game. The men who came in should have been more courteous, the waiter should have asked whether it was okay to change the channel, and as soon as the channel was changed (because the server didn't ask), the baseball fan should have spoken up. Since it's only one television, it seems petty, but I go with the old standby of "first come, first serve."

Well put.

Yes, Tom, it was your mini-review that prompted me to weigh in, too! No, my son wasn't merely parking the car, but he was driving a short distance to get his wife and the place (I refuse to upgrade it to call it a restaurant) was very far from full. We probably weren't waiting more than 10 minutes -- but it felt much longer as we tried to jolly our 2 1/2 year-old grandson and keep him engaged. If we could have stopped our son before he went in the door, we would have suggested going somewhere else on the block. Anyway, thanks for letting me vent!

Thanks for filling in some blanks. And I'm happy to let you vent in this forum.

I understand it when it's crowded, but I wrote a few weeks ago about an 3/4ths empty patio that remained empty after I protested and was seated and my dining partner arrived. I can assure you I remain reluctant to return to that brasserie for that policy alone. Note to managers/owners: When it's not busy and your hostess enforces that policy, you and your servers are losing money and my future business.

 The best policies allow for wiggle room.

I don't think you can find banh mi in DC. Trust me; I've been looking. Most can only be found in Falls Church/Fairfax. The closest is the Rebel Heroes truck that goes around in Arlington. Once a week it's in Crystal City and Rosslyn. One of these days I'll take a long lunch to get one. The Post wrote it up last week I believe.

Hi Tom--I'm hoping that you will publish this and give some recognition to Eola in Dupont Circle. You've given a positive review, as have "other" critics, but I've never seen it mentioned in your chats before and I don't hear much about it generally. My fiancee and I visited it last Saturday night, and we had an absolutely marvelous experience. The food is top-notch, with inventive menu options using fresh ingredients. We got the pork belly, nettle panna cotta, and chilled asparagus soup for appetizers, and they were fantastic, as were our entrees of scallops and house-made turnip and greens ravioli. The atmosphere is subtly gorgeous, and the service was extremely professional--cordial but not overbearing. And, as your review stated, the drinks were perfectly mixed (like you, I had the pisco sour, and it holds up as well as you said). In my opinion, the experience at Eola reminded me of Obelisk and Komi, two other excellent "townhouse" restaurants in the Dupont area. It also called to mind what Restaurant Nora used to be before it became a "scene" place. I didn't get the impression a lot of people were there on last Saturday night, though, so word clearly hasn't gotten completely out yet. Indeed, I've walked by the place many times and not really noticed it. Because I want to support independent restaurants with up-and-coming chefs, like Eola--particularly given that it opened in the midst of challenging economic times--I hope you'll publish this and at least bring it to the attention of your chatters as an excellent option in the Dupont area. I don't make it a habit of writing in to your chats, but this is an exception, for it really was that superb! Thanks.

Here's another shout out for Eola, which I reviewed in April. While it's not in the same cooking league as Obelisk and Komi, it has definite neighborhood charm and a solid young chef going for it.  And it's definitely tastier/more consistent/cozier  than Nora!

My girlfriend and I are going to Inn at Little Washington this weekend -- having dinner and staying the night. Do you have any tips for getting the most out of the whole experience?

As I've said before in this forum, hope to land at a table overlooking the garden and if the weather permits, ask to have dessert  outside.

 

Anyone else care to weigh in with suggestions?

My Dad, of all people, wants to try Dim Sum. He lives in Springfield VA and I live in the District. Can you recommend any good dim sum places in DC or VA?

The tiny A & J in Annandale has what you're after:  small plates with major appeal. 

 

I like the smoked chicken, mustard greens tossed with bean curd skin, tart pickled cabbage, sweetly spiced spare ribs, foot-long fried breadsticks  -- and the tab. You can feast well for under $15 a person.

Hi Tom, I have been submitting for weeks and am really hoping for a response as my fiance and I are leaving for our Honeymoon on Sunday (marrying on Saturday!). Can you give us advice on where to dine in Charleston? We have reservations at Magnolia's, Cypress and Hank's Oyster Bar, but we wanted to hear your take on things and possibly get help from the peanut gallery. We will be there a week so all types of restaurants and price ranges are acceptable. Consider it a wedding gift! Thank you!

It's been some time since I've eaten in Charleston, but I'll link to my latest Postcard column for you and throw the question out to the audience this morning.  Also, you should know that Sean Brock, the chef at McCrady's in Charleston, recently picked up the 2010 James Beard award for Best Chef/Southeast.

 

Here's wishing you a four-star weekend!

I think someone suggested leaving a measley tip under a table leg with a note to the server re the wobbly table - I'd just like to note that is really rude. Servers don't have control over every aspect of your dining experience, but they often bear the brunt of frustration. If you have a problem, ask the server to help or mention it to a manager. I'm willing to bet that many of these folks who think of tips in such a way have never waited tables themselves.

Even if someone is a terrible waiter, there's no excuse for leaving a tip on the  -- floor, for goodness sake. I agree with you:  People who have waited tables tend to be good tippers.

I think it should be a judgement call for the restaurant, though they should make sure their staff has some common sense training about it, and on the flip side I think people should respect the decision and not get in a huff. There are some restaurants that can look empty one minute, then fill up the next (for example, go to Majestic cafe sometime around 5 or 5:30 and look at the difference an hour can make) I'm sorry, but someone running an errand to pick someone up is asking a bit much if the restaurant would rather not seat you. If it was my place I'd have seated them if there was room on the condition that they have to order drinks or apps and not wait on the son - if he can't be there on time the burden is on him to order late and "catch up", not the restaurant.

Thanks for sharing.

Very poor choice on the resto's part. Get a DVR. Record the basketball, show the local phenom. Signed, An Understanding Lakers fan

I'd like to know where this took place, and not necessarily to pile on: A good roast beast sandwich is a rare find.

Just came back. Had a pleasant tasting menu experience at The Library. And it was loads cheaper than tasting menus here in DC. Also, they have a really lovely rooftop patio/bar.

Don't know the place. But thanks.

I took a friend to dinner Friday night at a place I go fairly often. Turns out my friend had a LOT of special requests - starting with asking to be moved twice because she didn't like the location or shape of the first 2 tables. Sigh. I tipped very well because of all the special cooking and serving requests (a bigger bowl for the salad??), but can't help but wonder if that was enough.

This happened to me recently. Only my guests were boorish. I tipped well,  but I also apologized to the owner on the way out.

BTW I am a former waiter, bartender, cook, dishwasher host etc. I have done everything in a restaurant but manage. I know whose fault it is when something happens during a meal. Putting the tip under the table leg was a joke. I tip very well when the service warrants it. I will stiff the server if the service is that bad. And no I don't care if he/she has to tip out. If I stiff a server it was their fault. And yeah I did talk to the manager.

Are you implying everything that goes wrong is the fault of the server? I beg to differ!

You still got it!

Thanks, bro. Or Mom. Or EAL.

Tom, I was saddened when news broke about Adria closing El Bulli. Unfortunately, I was not able to get reservations there while I was on my honeymoon in Spain. In your opinion, what other restaurants would be worthy of an international trip just to dine there?

Gosh. Where to start? Two places that leap to mind are Zuni Cafe in San Francisco (I dream about its roast chicken, sparkling oysters and lunch-only hamburger) and Le Cinq in Paris. The latter is haute French, but not at all stuffy. I sent my parents there for their 50th a few years ago. 

One reason you see large groups hitting the chains/themed restaurants when they visit DC, is that many of them are from areas on the country where they don't have "Hard Rock Cafes" or "ESPN Zones". I worked for a Member of Congress from a rural state and whenever groups came to DC they always wanted to hit thoses places. School aged kids would rather go to a chain they've only heard about but never visited.

Of course. But I still love the idea of introducing groups to what's local and special about our dining scene.

Help!! My husband and I are closing on our first house in 3 weeks. Where's a good place to go and celebrate. Since we're going to be house poor the price needs to be a bit lower. I was thinking no more than $20/per person. Ethnicity is open (no vietnamese).

Are you looking for someplace in the District? If so, I'm a big fan of the new Ethiopic in the Atlas District. Bar Pilar in Logan Circle has good drinks and lots of plates well under your $20 ceiling, including shrimp risotto, duck confit and buttermilk fried chicken. In Dupont Circle, you should consider the Turkish-themed Ezme, home to tasty and affordable small plates.

Dear Tom, I am a huge fan and just adore your work. I was hoping you could do me a favor. Two years ago I moved to NYC for school, and the food scene there completely monopolized my attention. Now I'm back in DC permanently and was wondering if you could give me a quick recap of what I missed since August 2008 - your favorite meals, new restaurants that I should check out asap, old favorites that closed or may not be what they used to be, etc. This would help me immensely to get right back on track as a DC foodie. And obviously, if you'd prefer to give me the scoop over dinner rather than writing it all down here, I'd be there in a heartbeat! : ) Cheers, Back in DC to Stay

Thanks for the kind words, but I'm afraid I don't have the time today to list the dozens of important Restaurants You Need to Know About. 

 

Still, I want to help you out. How about a few links to my last two fall dining guides, which more or less describe my favorite places to eat? 

Hi Tom. Your chats make my Wednesdays. I was thinking of taking a few mini staycations this summer to tide me over until my actual vacation in October, and one of the ideas I had was to spend a day in DC and treat myself and a friend to a memorable meal. If you had to pick one vegetarian dinner in the area, where would you want to go? Thanks!

CityZen or Rasika would be my top-tier picks  in the city.  They are two very different restaurants, obviously, but both have four-star chefs.

I hope you didn't have to actually see Sex and the City 2 to compare the Buddha Bar to it. I was a major fan of the show and enjoyed the first movie, but I hear the new one is awful.

I liked my colleague Ann Hornaday's take on"Sex 2" the best.  Her written warning kept me from seeing the pic.

Sorry to disappoint, but there are no good banh mi places in DC---gotta go to Falls Church for that. I could never, ever recommend the "banh mi" at G Street Food, which has roasted pork that is either underseasoned or oversalted (I haven't found one just right yet) and julienned bland carrots and radish (did they forget to pickle them?). My husband (who's Vietnamese) recently tried the Sauca truck that comes by McPherson Square. They use naan/pita, so its not an authentic banh mi, but he said the flavors were pretty spot on...

Thanks for weighing in. Sounds like we're getting half-answers to the poster's query. Who knew that such a popular snack would be so hard to source?

Our Good to Go column on the Sauca truck.

Baltimore Sun has an article saying they are closing most!

I, for one, am not crying in my beer over the loss of an ESPN.

 

Sorry for the hiccups today, folks. I'll try to make it up to you next week. Here's wishing you a delicious rest of the week. See you next Wednesday.

Here is the Baltimore Sun article in question.

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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