Ask Tom

Jun 23, 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.

GOING TO THE DOGS: The minds behind  Matchbox and the new Ted's Bulletin on Capitol Hill plan to open yet another fueling station: DC-3, a 20-seat ode to regional American hot dogs.

 

The joint's 10 or so draws will include a bacon-wrapped, deep-fried "Ripper" from New Jersey (Woof!); a cheese- and chili-dressed hot dog representing Cincinnati; and an-all beef link -- jazzed up with peppers and celery salt and enclosed in a poppy seed bun -- as homage to Chicago. Seattle gets "fish on a stick," says Ty Neal, one of the four owners.

 

The restaurateur says the name DC-3 is a nod to his brother and business partner, Mark, a pilot and airplane buff. Their next project replaces the tiny Firehouse Cafe at 423 8th St. SE and is expected to open in August.

 

In other delicious developments, Ty Neal reports Ted's Bulletin just began serving breakfast throughout the day.  "We got the kinks worked out," he says, explaining the delay of the service, which had been promoted from the beginning on the menu.

 

And looking waaaaaaaay ahead (well, to 2012), Neal and his colleagues have signed to open their first restaurant in Virginia. It will be another Matchbox and part of the Mosaic development in Falls Church, near Lee Highway and Rt. 50.  Matchbox will be joined by other independent businesses, he says, including Taylor Gourmet, a concept from restaurateur Jeff Black and (here's something for film buffs to applaud) the Angelika theater, an import from New York.

 

Happy Hump Day, food lovers. Let's begin.

 

 

 

Boyfriend's BD dinner Saturday...he loves seafood...what's the best casual seafood place you can recommend in DC or VA? We've already done Hank's Oyster Bar in Alexandria twice and love it.

How casual is casual? Because both Tackle Box and Surfside, in Georgetown and Glover Park, respectively, do a good job with simple stuff (and Surfside has the advantage of an upstairs deck). 

 

You might also consider Coastal Flats in Tysons Corner or the more yupscale Passionfish in Reston. 

Please please please answer my question. I am planning a VIP dinner in Downtown DC the end of July and was turned on to Mio by a co-worker. There have been some chef changes but I was wondering if you would still recommend it for an executive dinner? Thanks in advance

I like the space, but I haven't eaten there in at least nine months. What exactly are your requirements (menu/price/location)?

Tom, if there is one word I would be happy never hearing again when reading posts in your chat is "underwhelming". Since when does it describe a food experience? Can't it be replaced with something else? Seriously, there are better words to replace a culinary experience: not to my liking? Bland? not impressed? not memorable?...

"Underwhelming" doesn't bother me so much. I dislike "unctuous," "toothsome," and "farm to table" even more.

 

Speaking of food descriptions we detest, did anyone catch the LA Weekly's  recent  "Top 10 Foodie Words We Hate" (Starting with Foodie)? A fun read.

We recently went to Johnny's Halfshell and had a pleasant dinner. Our hostess asked for the check and paid. Our waiter came back to the table and loudly "apologized" to the whole table for the bad service since the tip was so small. On a bill of a bit over $200 including a bottle of wine, she had added a tip of $30. Am I wrong in thinking the waiter was WAY out of line? Should we have complained to the manager?

Fifteen percent of $200 is $30 -- not a great tip, but certainly not a bad one, either.

 

Shame, shame on the waiter who returned to tell you what he thought of the gratuity. I definitely would have had a word with the manager after such rudeness.

Tom's take on Johnny's Half Shell.

Your post a few weeks back regarding the financial troubles of Robert Donna's enterprises had me wondering. Have you / would you consider investing in a restaurant? What would some of your selection criteria be for identifying a location, a theme, and a chef's vision?

I have zero interest in owning a restaurant, but *great* respect for those who do, and run them successfully (in terms of cooking, service and finances).  Operating a restaurant is one of the hardest things to do well.

We stumbled upon this place on Monday (in the neighborhood for a concert), and had a great time! The food, atmoshphere, and service were all great, and it was so inexpensive (the white bean dip was great - just a bit spicy). We had never been to that neighborhood before (I don't even know what it is called - H Street NE), but we'll definitely make a trip back.

Although the server was wrong, the hostess underpaid. For a bill "a bit over $200," I would tip $40 or a little more. I figure 20% and then round up.

I guess it depends, in part, on what "a bit over $200" really is.  A fifteen percent tip is not a crime; disparaging guests for leaving such ... is. 

Again, I will say it: you never steer us wrong. Tried Locanda Verde in NYC -- wow. Thanks, Tom!

Love that lamb burger!

 

Tom - Just a public gripe about restaurants and providing correct information (generally). I called West End Bistro the morning of the US-Slovenia World Cup match to see if their bar would be open, and sure enough, they said they would be opening 30 minutes early (11 am). At 11, a group of 8 coworkers from our law firm arrived, only to find a locked door and a hostess refusing to let us in. It's too bad, because we had planned to watch the match and stay for lunch. Instead, we went to another restaurant (of similar price/quality), and enjoyed a leisurely Friday. Not the end of the world, but I'd expect better from such an establishment.

The manager I spoke with wasn't familiar with your situation, but he did say that the Ritz Carlton's nearby lobby bar was broadcasting the matches morning, noon and night, and with special drink promotions. That obviously doesn't help you and your colleagues now. Maybe the bistro misunderstood your request?

Tom's take on Westend Bistro from last year's fall dining guide.

Tom, I can see from your video segments that you are one sharp-dressed man. Where do you buy your suits?

That's funny, because I pretty much hate shopping.

 

I tend to buy most of my clothes on the road:  Chicago, San Francisco and New York, although my last two suits came from good ol'  Arlington (love those sales at Macy's!) 

Check out Tom looking dapper in his TV Dinner videos.

Tom, last week someone asked about Bethesda restaurants and you lamented the lack of good ones in the area. How's Persimmon these days? I know, technically it's not in Bethesda, but it's close enough. I haven't been in a while, but I've enjoyed the meals I've had there.

You know, I haven't been to Persimmon in several years. Perhaps a chatter can weigh in with a review yet today.

HI Tom, I noticed over the weekend that the former space of Loconda on Capitol Hill shows signs of reopening. Any scoop on what is going in there?

All I know is that that wonderful location (633 Penn Ave. SE) is up for grabs. If anyone out there is interested, I can share a contact number.

Posting early so that I can watch the world cup. I have been a server for ten years bouncing back between both coasts, and I have noticed a precipitous decline in manners amongst diners in the past few years. A very simple case in point: I worked in an upscale Thai restaurant and, without fail, at least three times a night, a customer will rudely dress me down because I didn't give them chopsticks. Thai is a french cutlery cuisine - I am happy to provide you with chopsticks, I am happy to provide you with anything you want, but why be so rude about it? Why do people (read: men, because they always are) seem to get one of life's little satisfactions out of being rude to their waiter (especially about something that wasn't, in actuality, a mistake on my part). I implore people who eat out to not only stop viewing dining out as an opportunity to assert your alpha dominance. But also if you notice this in your companions, kindly ask them to chill. In the end of the day, if you have a rude dining companion who is berating staff for sport and ego-lifting, it reflects just as badly upon you as them.

Back when I was single, dates who were rude to the staff in restaurants never got a second chance with me.  Boorish behavior is a big turn-off. (And yes, we're all judged by the company we keep.)

At the Panera in Timonium: Was there on business with grandson. Had a limited amount of time for lunch. Went to Panera and ordered. Lunch promptly served up but no place to sit . It was very busy with lunch crowd and folks using the internet. Other diners standing around waiting on a table to open up, some eating standing up and others, like us, had to have our food repacked to take out. I asked the manager about all the tables occupied by folks not eating and he said Panera has a policy of not asking anyone to vacate a table. I think they should rethink the policy. What about you?

I'm with you. Patrons with food should get priority over laptop users nursing two tablespoons of Diet Coke in their cups.  The manager wasn't doing his job: directing traffic, in this case.

Hi Tom--I'm meeting a friend for dinner and it is my turn to pick the restaurant. I want to pick something near her (17th and S), but I do not know the neighborhood. Any suggestions for a vegetarian-friendly (and I do mean vegatarian--not pescatarian), inexpensive, relaxed restaurant for a mid-week dinner?

I'm keen on the new Agora, which I previewed in today's First Bite column in the Food section. In fact, some of my favorite encounters involved vegetables at the young Turk.

This morning's Dish column was a repeat of an earlier posting. Is there no new "dish" to report?

Of course! Did you miss my introduction at the top?

The challenge: a dinner spot near Penn Quarter that's tasty, at least a little hip and won't break the bank. The only thing I can think of is the lounge at PS7's but we're four people and I want to make sure we get a table.

What about Cafe Atlantico, Proof or Oyamel? Lower on the food chain, there's Asia Nine.

I agree with their policy wholeheartedly. As a student, I use Panera as a study spot because the draw of wifi at a location like Panera is that you are allowed to go there and spend as much or as little time there as you want. Yes, I linger with some diet coke...but I too was a patron with food. And often times, I'll order more food or drinks the longer I'm there.

But don't you feel uncomfortable (read: guilty) when there are lines of people waiting to sit down and you're more or less finishing with your food? 

Don't forget that just a block down from Agora is Cafe Green, which is all vegan! I live nearby and went with a group of folks (none of us are vegetarian), and we thought it was delicious -- even the mac and "cheese."

Now how did I miss that ......?

 

Thanks for the tip.

I was in a Thai restaurant recently getting take out, and the new waitress was in such a mess--she had multiple checks with money and a credit card and couldn't remember which belonged to which table. She was so frazzled and I felt so sorry for her. I told her to relax and to breathe and that she'd get it sorted out, which she did. It reminded me of how lucky most of us are to work in front of computers, mostly left alone. If you feel a need to criticize your wait staff, just imagine how you might feel having to do YOUR job in public all day with anyone free to comment on your performance.

Ha! I totally sympathize, because like that waitress, I DO do my work in public and my performance IS routinely evaulated. 

 

Some weeks, I'd *love* to do add a "P.S.  I wasn't feeling well on deadline" to the end of a chat or column.

I would say that, with the exception of the menu having changed, the critic's review is still spot on--Persimmon maybe doesn't "wow" you, but it's a consistently nice spot for good food & engaging service at lunch or dinner. Good ingredients, simple presentations. I've not been a huge fan of the crabcake there, but other seafood is done well.

Thanks for chiming in.

Remains delicious. I had the lamb not too long ago, and it competes with 1789 as my favorite rack of lamb in the area. Yum.

Now *that's* a compliment.

I have to agree with the student using Panera as a study spot. When a place sets up free wifi, it's asking to attract lingerers. I thought diners at Panera knew that? Maybe it's a generational thing...

Okay, but I think there should be a time limit on the space, as with exercise equipment at the gym, if the place is busy.  I mean, it's common courtesy.

Complain to management about it-- my friend works at a Panera and they turn off the wifi at lunch time for this specific reason to scatter folks who have been there since 9 am getting endless refills on coffee.

 Problem solved!

Wow. I think it's pretty self-centered to sit and fiddle with your laptop while other patrons are standing around with their food and nowhere to go. These are probably the same people who don't give up their seats on the Metro to pregnant women, because they "got there first." At the very least, invite one of the standers to sit with you at your table. Sharing is something we all learned in kindergarten, remember?

Has anyone else noticed how few able-bodied men (and young women) give up their seats on the Metro for people who obviously could use a break?

For the chatter looking for really good seafood.. I LOVE Oceanaire. Might be more dressy than they want but it's really good.

Yep, Oceanaire is a good catch. Handsome to boot.

The wifi log in page at Panera actually requests that patrons during lunch hours keep their wifi/table use time to 30min and they also request that you use a table that is appropriate to the size of your party.

Okay, so SOMEone isn't following the rules (or hasn't read them).

Hahah....is "yupscale" and new word for yuppie-upscale, or just a typo? Either way, I like it!

That was intentional. ;)

I disagree. I'm not a student. I eat at Panera 2-3 times a week for lunch and one of the reasons I go there is that sometimes I do need Wi-Fi access and sometimes for a while. Panera provides this service in order to attract repeat business from people who don't have a fixed office, but need the WiFi...that's a part of doing business there. I'm as much a patron as the person just coming in. Panera is catering to me to get 3-4 meals per week as opposed to some of these people who are wandering in just once for a meal. And people like me are why they do not and will not rethink their policy on asking patrons to leave. If that is a problem for you, seek out a less busy business for your lunch.

Another perspective.

Hello Tom! I was wondering whether you had been to Eventide recently, and if you still stood behind your favorable review? I, along with 3 friends, recently dined there and was severely disappointed by several aspects of the meal. First, the pasta dish was bland: the basil pasta lacked any basil flavor, the tomato sauce had no seasoning, the crab was a now show, and the shrimp were overcooked. While the halibut dish was significantly better, the fish itself was upstaged by they accompanying side of pasta and peas. Also, the pickled ramps strewn about the plate seemed like an afterthought. The biscuits were good, as was the amuse bouche that evening (although I'm not sure it is a compliment when diners compare the sauce underneath a cornmeal ball to a Chinese takeout place's sweet and sour pork dish). Anyway, I was just curious what the feedback was from other diners and whether this experience was just an unfortunate dining experience or if the establishment as a whole was slipping in quality?

 Wow. Sounds as if you and I dined on the same night!

 

Yes, the biscuits are as good as ever. The amuse bouche, too. But after that, it was mostly downhill (except for the chocolate dessert).

Really, Tom! "Oceanaire is a good catch!" I expect better of you. Leave the puns to me (I am from Punnsylvania!)

Okay, okay. I just wanna liven things up a tad.

Hi Tom, Any suggestions on how we should behave and what to expect? I'm so excited and just wanted to go with a open mind. But also don't want to embarrase myself.

Don't point with your chopsticks.

 

Don't drown your sushi in soy sauce.

 

Other than that, feel free to ask questions and sit back and relax. It's a really transporting experience.

Tom's review of the revamped Sushi Taro.

Tom's TV Dinner episode about rules for enjoying sushi.

Hi - this isn't a question; really a story and word of thanks. A friend and I had lunch at Matuba in Bethesda on Saturday. Lunch was pretty good; service pretty efficient. We left money on the table, including a decent tip, and went looking for rest rooms before we left the restaurant. As we were leaving, our waitress came running up to us, obviously relieved to see we were still in the restaurant. She explained that we had left too much money! (I inadvertently left a $50 instead of a $20.) Just wanted to say how refreshing it is to encounter such honesty, and how appreciative I am to have the extra money returned. What might have been an unpleasant discovery turned into a nice ending to a lovely lunch. Thanks Matuba!

 Most cool. Here's a shout out to the four-star server at Matuba!

Have you been back to Redwood lately? Based on several recent visits, I'd say they have fixed that early problem with terrible service (and I would add that one of their neighbors holds that distinction now), and I really like the food.

Indeed I have been back! You must have missed my spring dining guide last month. Bottom line: Redwood is a  pleaser.

Have you checked out any of the new burger places that seem to be proliferating along Connecticut Avenue near Dupont Circle?

I can't get beyond the Burger Joint's patties. My goal is to eat my way through the whole menu (over time, of course). 

"Soulful"- what does that even mean for a dish?!?!

Perhaps it's ... spirited? Hahahaha

These kids have heard of the public library, right?

Maybe not!

Hi Tom, for a birthday celebration, which would you choose?

That's easy: Bourbon Steak. I love the look, the variety  (don't miss the lobster pot pie!) and the cocktails, among other details.

Hi, Tom - I'm baack. You helped me out in December with a right-on-the-money recommendation for the Tabard Inn when we were seeing the Terra Cotta Warriors. Saturday we're going to the Lincoln Cottage near the Old Soldiers' Home (Georgia Ave/Upshur area NW). Can you give us a couple of interesting ideas for lunch in the neighborhood? Thanks!

Awhile back, my answer would have been the Hitching Post for its fried-to-order chicken and shrimp and side dishes. But food pals have been disappointed with both the attitude and the quality of the mom & pop outpost of late.

 

Not too far away there are Sweet Mango for Jamaican flavors and RedRocks for pizza and beer. 

 

Anyone else care to weigh in?

What's the story on the expansion of the Ray's empire along Wilson Blvd (the Glass, the Game, the Catch...)? I know the projected opening dates were (at some point in the not too distant past) staggered through Spring and early Summer, but I haven't heard anything about them.

For starters, as of *today,*  Ray's Hell-Burger Too opens at 1713 Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, the space previously scheduled for Ray's: The Game.

 

Owner Michael Landrum says, via email, "While we are still making good on our promise to introduce exotic and wild game burgers to the DC area with Hell-Burger Too, we felt that regardless of how much people love the original Hell-Burger, there were too many outstanding justifiable complaints about the Hell-Burger experience ... to open a purely esoteric menu concept."

 

On the immediate upside at Too, he says, that means table service, credit cards a turkey burger with fresh sage, hand-spun shakes and beer and wine.  And on the game front, the new joint is serving a wild venison burger and a wild boar burger done "Hanoi-style" -- although I'm not sure what that means.

 

The Game, in other words, has been postponed by permit , construction and other delays.  But stay tuned.

 

 

Hey Tom It's my BIG birthday on Saturday and I told my husband I want to go to a german restaurant that's a bit more authentic. The servers dress the part, true german food etc. Where would you suggest going?

You want your husband to take you to Schmankerl Stube in Hagerstown. It's got the dirndls, the lush sauerkraut, the music that suggests Oktoberfest, the Black Forest cake and on and on.

Tom -- I suddenly find myself with exactly one hour to catch a bite in Penn Quarter Friday night before an 8 p.m. curtain at the Sydney Harmon Theater. What would Tom do?

Tom would go to the bar at Jaleo. Or 701.

Hi Tom, I am hoping you can respond to my question, as my vacation is fast approaching! Do you or any of the chatters have any "can't miss" dining selections for St. Michaels/Eastern Shore and Annapolis? Thanks very much, love your chats!

O'Learys for fish in Annapolis .... Bartlett Pear Inn for American in Easton .... time is running out....

Moroni and Brothers does a really nice crust on their pizzas. It's one of the few places my wife will eat the pizza "bones!"

I *have* to make time for that place.

My wife took my to Volt for a surprise, pre-birthday lunch (she's crafty). It was perfect. I announced it on Facebook and told my friends and many people asked how we got reservations, so here's a hint for the chatters: Volt is on Opentable for everything but Table 21, so while it may be hard to get a reservation it's not hard to find an opening. (And lunch is an easier get than dinner.) Opentable is a great solution for Volt, btw.

 Smart wife you have!(And nice plug for OpenTable.)

Judging from what readers are telling me, I think Table 21 is harder to reserve than just about any other restaurant on the East Coast these days.

 

 

Hi Tom-- --We follow you religiously, and so took the rec to dine at Eventide in Arlington. It was the worst dining experience we've had in DC metro. There was a 45-minute gap, appetizer to entre -- despite a promise of 'rush' service at 25 minutes of waiting -- one of us bit into loose bone fragments in a chop, and then management insisted we accept desserts as atonement; we said we didn't want to legitimize their behavior by taking what we felt was a bribe. We want to warn others, but think Yelp is now in the hands of its ad salesfolk, and our warning will be buried. Short of Facebook, how do we alert others? Thanks as always....

You know, I would have been surprised by your review had I not dined there recently myself.

 

The service was spot-on, but I was tempted to take down my own raves, framed on the wall, after my mediocre meal: Gloppy pasta topped with salty shrimp, watery white gazpacho, over-wrought presentations ..... seriously, I wondered if the chef, his sous chef AND the line cooks had all called in sick.  I didn't recognize the place.

Tom, Dave Pressley from Eventide here. Needless to say, I was disappointed to read that a guest had a subpar dining experience with us...and you too! If that reader would like to give another shot, I'd be happy to make things up to them. Please share my email address with them so they can get in touch with me. I do want to address the crab dish in particular though. When we first put it on the menu, the sauce was criticzed for being too salty by a lot of our guests--it is a VERY concentrated sauce using tomatoes, crabs and not much else. The salt water from the crabs was making the dish too "oceany", so we had to cut the sauce significantly with more tomatoes (we don't add any salt to the dish) to ease back the seasoning. Since salt is so subjective to different people, it now comes off as being bland by some. We're going back to the drawing board as we speak... We certainly haven't "fallen off". Just tweaking dishes to make our guests, as a whole, happy. It's not easy. We're working hard every day to keep our game up!

This just in, as we draw to a close. (Thanks, Dave.)

I want to take my friend out for Italian for his birthday. He's studied in Italy and has a very discerning palate. Which should I take him to, Bibiana or Siroc?

Bibiana!

 

That's all for today, gang. See you next week, same time, same place.

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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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