Ask Tom

Apr 06, 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.

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Tom, I recently had the pleasure of being the first brunch customer at Medium Rare in Cleveland Park. As you know Medium Rare has a fixed menu that consists of bread, salad and steak frites (with some egg options during brunch). Overall, it was a fabulous meal. The menu is limited but they do it extremely well in a friendly and welcoming environment. It seems as if this fixed menu concept hasn't existed in DC since Le Steak in Georgetown. Restaurants can't go wrong with great simple food. Why doesn't DC have more concepts like this? Or do they exist and I don't know about them?

You're right when you say "restaurants can't go wrong with great simple food." Look at the roaring success of Ray's Hell Burger and Georgetown Cupcake, among other single-concept or highly-focused endeavors.

 

The challenge, of course, is to nail the dish or the idea every single meal for every single customer and hope that there are sufficient numbers of people who want to eat the restaurant's one or two items on a regular basis.

 

As much as I dig the philosophy of Medium Rare, I'm not sure I'm going to be hankering regularly for steak frites, or if I do, that I won't want other than a salad for my starter. I like more variety than Medium Rare offers.

 

Happy Hump Day, gang. It's great to be back in the driver's seat after a week away from you all. Lots of questions this morning, so let's rock on.

This issue raised in the Post Magazine this week, reminded me of an incident yerar ago when dining at Old Angler's Inn with my husband and parents. All was going welll until our plates were cleared. We waited and waited and no one came to ask about dessert or coffee. This was a birthday dinner for my husband and my mom who share the same birthday, so dessert was definitely on our minds.Finally, our waiter returned and we placed our order. As we were close to finishing we were asked to leave because the table was needed, I was so stunned that I did not bring up the poor service. But we never retuirned.

Your situation at Old Angler's Inn was a little different from that of the couple featured in Ask Tom last Sunday, since they were allowed to eat all three courses at leisure and had just finished their coffee when they were asked to free up their table. Your group "waited and waited' to be asked about a third course, a detail that puts blame on the restaurant staff.

 

If you're a regular of this forum, you know what my final thought is:  Too bad someone in the party didn't raise the time lag with a manager, right then and there (even off to the side if the host didn't want to raise a fuss in front of the other guests).

My husband and I live in downtown Silver Spring and will often visit some of the downtown restaurants for a quick dinner. At many of these restaurants, you order at the counter, gather your own drink/utensils/condiments and then your meal is brought to the table. Throughout the meal, we as responsible for refills/getting more napkins, etc. So am I supposed to tip? If so, whom? Do I leave a tip at the counter (some places have a tip jar there) or do I leave the tip on the table for the person who brought out the food? Do I tip the usual 15-20% or less since I am still doing a lot of the work myself? I rarely see others tip, but I don't want to be doing the wrong thing. Thanks!

If there's a tip jar visible, and depending on the size of my order,  I'm inclined to throw in a few bucks. If no such container is set out, I'm likely to leave a dollar or two on the table, because some one has, in fact, done a small service for me.

 

The actual amount can vary, however, depending on the mood of the cashier and the speed and helpfulness of the food runner.

 

Chatters, I'd love to hear what you do in fast/casual situations?

Tom, I'm interested in your take on this situation. I took your advice and addressed it with the manager on the spot, but was so upset that I probably came across as flustered. I also admit that I can be sensitive sometimes. A few Sundays ago, I took my best friend for brunch at a chain restaurant in Old Town that we frequent often (both this location and the DC location). In fact, I ate at their Glover Park location once a week during college (2000) until it closed just a few years ago. It's not a four star place, but we've had consistent service and know what we like. We're early 30s, polite, easy diners and tip well. My friend was driving me to National for a flight and we needed to be quick, so I let the hostess at the front door know. He said it wouldn't be a problem, and they were not busy. We were seated by our waitress and immediately ordered drinks. I ordered the "discount" house cocktail I've ordered for 10+ years. When the waitress came back to take our orders I mentioned that I'd like my eggs extra dry, but we did not make any other special requests. I took a sip of my drink and tasted that it was all mix- or hadn't been mixed well. I asked my friend to taste it, without letting him know I thought anything was wrong. He sipped it and said it did not taste like the usual drink we order. The waitress was nowhere to be seen for quite sometime, so when another server asked if we'd like more chips, I mentioned the drink to him. The waitress quickly came to our table on the defensive to ask what was wrong. When I mentioned it didn't taste like it usually does, she said "It's our cheapest drink, what do you expect?" I politely said that it didn't tasted like it was all mix, and had not been mixed and ask if I could have a replacement. When the waitress returned with the new drink, she slammed it on the table and told me she'd watched the bartender make the first one and she watched him make the second drink and they were exactly the same. After I sipped it, she loudly asked me, "Is there enough booze in that for you now?" The entire dining room turned around to stare. Then, she quickly brought our brunch and when she gave me my plate, loudly asked, "Those eggs dry enough for you now?" in the same condescending tone she asked about the drink. I guess she'd pegged me as a difficult customer at this point. I was so upset that I excused myself to speak to the manager, but at this point, I was so flustered and upset by her rude treatment that I don't think I made a very good case. He listened and a few minutes later dropped off a fully comped check. I did not expect this and in fact told him I wanted nothing except to not be charged for drink #1. He then apologized and said the waitress was having a bad day. My friend felt bad and left a $6 tip. His argument was that the staff may split tips. Should we have left a tip at all as a reward for horrible service? And is this one of those moments where I should have talked to the manager after the visit, since at that point, all I wanted to do was get out of the restaurant? Was I wrong to mention the bad drink to another server when I could not find her for 10 minutes and we were under time constraints? I appreciate the manager's solution, but I'm really hesitant to go back. I'm sure servers complain about customers in the kitchen or to the bartender, but I've never been called out like this before, especially in a dining room in front of other customers. Thank you!

One reason to splurge on an upgrade, huh?

 

You were within your rights to return a drink that was fixed incorrectly and, given your time constraints,  enlist the help of a second waiter. 

 

Server No. 1 errored at least three times, it appears, with her rude behavior. Even someone who is having a bad day shouldn't challenge a customer in the tone she apparently used with you. 

 

Sounds as if the manager handled the situation correctly. He listened. He acted. Right then and there.

 

Tipping is tricky in these situations. You don't want to reward bad behavior, but you also don't want to punish innocent parties.

 

In this scenario, I would have asked the manager how the tips are doled out to staff  (pooled vs. not pooled) and left him with the money you thought the experience warranted.  He, in turn, could give it to the deserving staffer(s).

 

Your pal did the right thing by leaving something behind; you did, after all, get a comped meal and Server No. 2 did sort of help you out.

 

Thoughts from the peanut gallery?

Tom, I'm going to El Paso in a couple of weeks and wanted to ask other chatters about their taqueria recommendations out there. Thanks!

Never been. El Paso, anyone?

Hi Tom, Why do you think there's nothing in the Springfield area other than Mike's American Grill? People here have good incomes, some of it even disposable! But I always have to go to Old Town Alexandria, Arlington or DC for a good meal.

GOOD question! I don't have an answer for you, but I *do* have an eatery tip out your way: El Sabor Boliviano (the former Village Chicken) on Backlick Road. The strapping soups and shredded fried beef are particular draws on the Bolivian menu.

Hi Tom - I need your help. Some friends from CA are coming next week and have asked us to meet them for dinner. They are staying in Old Town so I thought we would stay close. Do you have any sugestions? They are not foodies so the higher end restaurants are out. What do you think of Indigo Landing? I appreciae your help.

They're from California and they don't care about food?

 

But I digress.

 

I'd be inclined to take your visitors to the welcoming Columbia Firehouse, part of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, or Jackson 20 in the Hotel Monaco. The only thing Indigo Landing has going for it is its view, which is spectacular. I'd steer clear of the trap.

Tom, I am heading to Louisville and need some great places to eat. Help!

I haven't been to Louisville in forever, but I hear delicious descriptions of the menus at Edward Lee's 610 Magnolia and Anthony Lamas's Seviche there.

I was interested to see the question about over-staying in restaurants. Why do people think they can sit endlessly and hold up a table? Eat, drink, and go. Come on - have some courtesy for the waiter and the rest of us.

Another reference to last Sunday's Ask Tom round-up. I think the amount of time diners should occupy a table really depends on the type of restaurant, the time of day or month -- a number of factors.

 

If someone asked me to vacate a table at a busy Starbucks at high noon, and I was basically finished with my coffee, I'd understand. If someone asked me to leave my seat minutes after finishing dinner at Citronelle, where I'd be dropping triple digits per person and (hopefully) experiencing some artistry on the plate, I might feel rushed.

 

What sayeth today's audience?

Have not heard you mention much about Richard Sandoval's concepts .. ?

Really? Because I've written about both the Mexican native's concepts in DC:  Zengo near the Verizon Center and the younger Masa 14 in Logan Circle.

Do you have any news on when Fabio's new restaurant is opening or what its menu will feature?

I do, I do!  The good news is, Fabio Trabocchi is opening Fiola (202-628-2888) for dinner this Friday, and the chef-restaurateur is offering a 10 percent discount off patrons' bills during the soft opening stage.

Hi Tom - Love your chats and advice! I am planning a dinner party for my Dad's 60th birthday in Maryland. We would like to plan a special night at home for about 13 people and would like to hire a private chef. Do you have any recommendations on how I can find a private chef for this type of small dinner? I emailed one of his favorite restaurants to see if someone there is available (not sure if that's even possible since it's a Saturday), but I haven't heard back. Please help - it's coming up soon, on May 7th. Thank you! (I also asked friends for recommendations, but didn't come up with anything.)

What kind of food does Dad like? What is your budget? And where in the state is the dinner being staged?

 

If you can respond with a few more details during the hour, hopefully a chef or restaurateur in the crowd will raise their hand or be able to pint you in the right direction.

Isn't it important to remind all of us that it is in everyone's interests that restaurants are successful and that wait staff can earn a decent living? If we are not careful and overstay what is a reasonable time for a meal, all of those who rely on the restaurant will suffer. Shouldn't we all be thoughtful about those whose jobs are challenging enough, especially now as we come out of the "Great recession?" I eat out 3-4 times a week in DC, love and rely on your column, and generally deal with conscientious and caring people. Helen Darling

Ms. Darling, you sound as if you live up to your name!

 

Thanks for chiming in.

Multiple locations--classic dive. Rolled tacos in an indescribable sauce that you then pour over your fries. Most people either love Chico's or hate it. For other recomendations, Texas Monthly put together a list of the best Mexican restaurants. http://www.texasmonthly.com/magazine/mexicanfood If you like chile rellenos, go up hwy 28 to Chopes in La Mesa, NM. Best rellenos I have ever had.

I can always count on you smart chatters. Thanks for the promising suggestions.

I know it's only a word. I know the world has bigger problems right now (civil war, food shortages -- and I'm only talking about the US Govt!). But seriously, "foodie" is such a pretentious word. Can't we ban it from this chat?

I try hard not to use the word myself. I prefer "food lovers" or "food fans" or sometimes "chow hounds."

 

Here's a word I hate, and my own paper uses it a lot: "veggie," as in meatless. Yuck.  It grates on my eyes and ears.

 

Tom, My husband and I manage to have a date night in the city every few months thanks to a wonderful parents night out program at our son's school. The constraints are that it is a Friday night and we need to be done by 7:30 so we aim for a 5:30 reservation usually. But we are in a rut! We've done Central and the new Galileo. Corduroy and Estadio. Dino, Palena and Againn are part of our regular rotation too. Please don't suggest Rasika--I'll be in a heap with terrible acid reflux all weekend. We don't want to break the bank. Where else should we be going? Thanks!

Hey, what's the name of your son's school? What a great idea ...

 

I adore the cozy Et Voila! in the Palisades. Some smart friends took me their for my birthday a few years ago. Closer to downtown, you should consider the Oval Room, Bibiana, Birch & Barley, the divine Kushi on lower K St. NW, where you can sit at a bar and watch your sushi or grilled chicken prepared just feet in front of you.

I know you have said before that you don't get too many chances to cook at home but I'm wondering if you have any favorite cookbooks? Are there any must haves, in your opinion? I enjoy reading a good cookbook, like a novel and I'm always looking for a new one.

The cookbooks I seem to reach for most often, for inspiration or for actual recipes, include the Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers (her roast chicken is a standard-bearer) and Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, from which I've made many a risotto and the most exquisite pounded lamb chops dredged in eggs, bread crumbs and Parmesan then quickly fried.

As a Bethesda resident on the never ending quest for good restaurants in our neck of the woods, I was excited by your mention of Newton's Table in the magazine, but walked by and noticed that they don't look close to opening yet. Any update? Also, what's the ETA for Freddie's Lobster and Clams?

Owner Dennis Friedman told me just a few minutes ago that the delay of  Newton's Table was in part because "I wasn't happy with the bar," an issue since remedied. He has full staff in training, however, and hopes to open his doors, with the fire marshall's blessing, "in another 10 days" or so.

 

No word yet on when the Grapeseed spinoff is going to open.

It sounds like everything was handled the way it should have been, by the manager, except he shouldn't have mentioned that the rude waitress "was having a bad day." There's no excuse for her behavior. The scene probably still makes the original poster uncomfortable to think of because that's the way humans are wired, to keep unpleasant experiences in mind as a reminder of possible danger ("careful, there might be a saber-toothed tiger behind that tree"). But I hope the manager and the owner are reading this chat and realize how one rude waitress probably made several customers decide not to return (if I'd witnessed such a scene at the next table, I'd want some assurance that the perp had been severely reprimanded before venturing back and maybe getting her).

Ah, I meant to address that. Thanks for bringing up the manager's excuse for the rude server. He should have left out that explanation.

Hi Tom! My boyfriend's best friend is flying in from Texas this Friday. Can you recommend a place in Capitol Hill that won't kill my boyfriend's wallet? His friend only likes American food.

Does pizza count as American these days? If it does, I'd nominate Seventh Hill Pizza next to Montmartre, its owner. The bonus is al fresco seating.

Thanks, Tom! My Dad live in Columbia, MD, and we are really flexible and enjoy all kinds of foods. Also, my Dad LOVES anything sweet and chocolate. I don't know how much to expect to pay, but anything that is similar to a nice restaurant experience would be ok. We're not looker for a cheaper option, we just thought it would be more fun to celebrate at home this time around.

Any chefs out there interested in following up?

Tom, Just booked a vacation to San Francisco for my wife, my 3-year old daughter, and myself. I know you're a fan of the Bay area dining scene. Can you provide a few recommendations for places we can get good food that are kid-friendly? The little one is (like us) a fairly adventurious eater, but we're still working on refined table manners so places that are not too fine-dining are best, but any cuisine is welcome. Thanks!

One restaurant I almost always make time for is the aforementioned  Zuni Cafe, which serves a fabulous burger, but only at lunch.

 

Down near the water, I always enjoy a stroll through the Fery Building's food stalls and a bite at the Vietnamese-flavored Slanted Door. Not far away, Yank Sing is tops for dim sum (and the food comes on carts, and quickly).

Hi Tom! The Boyfriend and I have a reservation for Kushi on Monday night, and I was wondering if there is anything on the menu that we shouldn't miss. Thanks!

Anything with live scallops or sea urchin. Chicken fried with ginger. Grilled pork belly. Gosh, there's lots to like at  the bustling Japanese sushi and grill restaurant.

John Bauhs will do a great job! http://residentgourmet.com/

Is this Mr. Bauhs or a satisfied customer?

If you're in Louisville in the last few weeks of April, be aware that Derby "Wekk" is actually a two-week affair and the prices go up everywhere. The farther out you get from downtown the better off you'll be. There are all sorts of events. Derby is May 7.

Good to know for the Louisville-bound among us.

No trip to El Paso is complete with a trek out to the Cattleman's Ranch. ABout 35 minutes East. http://www.cattlemanssteakhouse.com/

Gracias.

Actually, I see no reason to worry about how tips are split. I mean how much about the operation are we supposed to understand before we give them our business and worry about our part in the grand scheme of things. I go out for entertainment, not to become part of an organizational analysis. Rude Service gets little or no tip. if that impacts others, then maybe they can work to get the rude server in line. I certainly don't think its my job.

Fair point, and a well-stated one at that.

Wanting a word that thousands of people use to be "banned," now, that's pretentious. BTW - finally ate at Le Bernadin last weekend immediately after seeing the Book of Mormon musical. Both were fantastic. The service at Le B was really spectacular.

But we're allowed to call the shots, to set the guidelines, in our own little corner here, don't ya think?

 

Thanks for the theater tip and the rave for what is one of my favorite seafood restaurants in the country.

I was hoping it was an "I can't believe it's not butter" themed restaurant.

How do you say "laugh out loud" in Italian?

If a malicious waitress is making other people lose out on tips, they need to tell the manager to fire her.

Or just tell the manager and let him make the decision.

I nominate EVOO!

And, um, the gal on TV who over-uses it!

Wow. We've all experienced issues with food, speed, etc. Mostly about the service and food and ability. That is totally different from insults deliberately directed at the customer by the staff. I would have been QUITE angry and demanded that the waitress be punished. The difference is so critical to me. I find that waitress's behavior intolerable. WOW!!!

Borderline abusive, huh?

 

I wonder what her bad day was the result of ...

I agree with the person who said that there is no need to worry about how tips are split. A server is a representative of the restaurant and should behave politely as their behavior impacts perceptions of that restaurant as a whole. I personally value service a lot and I am a generous tipper (rarely do I leave less than 20% and I tend to round up when calculating and I will throw in a little more if the server does a great job). That being said, if service is bad I tend to still leave a tip, but a small one. One pet peeve I have is when restaurants add tip to the receipt when you are not in a big group. Often this results in me leaving a 15% tip when I may have left 20% if left to my own calculations.

Where have you seen restaurants adding a tip to parties of, say, fewer than six?

When I was a server in a chain restaurant (PAC NW based seafood restaurant that has several locations in this area) about 10 years ago, the computer calculated our tip percentages. If a server routinely got less than 18% in a short period of time, they were called in by management for a discussion. Since most bills are paid by credit card these days, it's not hard for the computer to do this calculation. Leaving a bad tip can be a signal to management that things are not going right, even you you "just" leave 15%.

Fascinating.

You can't get much more American than the seafood and pizza at H Street's Liberty Tree, on the north side of the Hill.

How is it these days? I haven't returned since my early taste-test of the place.

I am anticipating leaving a medically-mandated diet soon, and the thing I want most is a cheeseburger. Where should I go? I don't need fancy toppings, just great beef, cooked well, and an excellent bun.

That description definitely applies to Frank Ruta's model sandwich at Palena Cafe, where the $12 burger is crafted from hand-cut beef and a house-baked bun, among other attributes.

The feed I was using in Google Reader doens't seem to be active.

Unfortunately, we are still waiting on the new RSS feed. In the meantime, you can find Tom's recent content here.

WHY DON'T YOU LIST HANDICAP ACCESS ANY MORE?

Partly because I think it's hard to reliably gauge, beyond a bathroom inspection and a check for stairs or ramps, and partly because I think it's up to diners with special needs to do some homework in advance of going to a restaurant.

 

That isn't mean to sound offensive, just that people with special needs know their wishes/requirements the best. 

Do you tip at Subway, Noodles and Co, McDonald's, etc.? I use this a standard for fast casual dining tipping. I only tip my regular, once a week for ten years pizza place (they have a 2 slice and canned pop lunch special) a dollar ($6 meal) - occassionally my guy throws in an extra slice.

"Pop." You must be from the Midwest. We say that back in Minnesota.

...please don't count GTown Cupcakes in this category. The cupcakes at Giant are better than the $4 ones you get at GC. No offense to GC... it's just that it is soooo easy to make a delicious cupcake. This trend is getting old.

I agree: I should have used another, more restaurant-y example. I'm no huge fan of GC. I want the whole trend to go away, in fact! But you got my drift.

My bro, sisi etc were all out. party was alrger then 6 so we got his with the mandtory tip. Problem was the service was awful. Both my bro and i have done everything in restaurant except mange so we talked to the manager saying no way were we going to accept the 18%. We discussed it and finally he moved the tip. Waiter who would ahve got maybe 10% got stiffed becuase of his manager

I agree, you shouldn't have to shell out for mediocre service.

I realize this is El Paso being asked about, but the best advice I ever got was on a trip to San Diego, where I was told to head for any taco stand named " ---berto's." Alberto, Roberto...and sure enough, Rigoberto's taco stand had the best I've ever tasted. Might be worth a try in El Paso.

Hey, I like the travel tip!

 

I've found places named after someone who actually exists tend to be better than average.

 

Curious what tips others might have for finding good food onthe road?

The cured mackerel is the best of both Japan and Denmark. Highlight of the night on a recent visit.

Love mackerel!

Tom, personally I think Gordon Ramsey is a jerk. But for some reason I love watching him try to turn around a struggling restaurant. If you could go into any area restaurant and do a complete makeover like he does, which restaurant would you choose? And what changes would you make? (But I assume you would use kinder language!)

I kind of did that, last week, in the form of a Tweet that I later took down ...

Tom, my colleagues and I were debating the merits of restaurants in a number of different cities in the USA. We were trying to agree on the top 5, but all had differing opinions. Which five cities would you say are the top 5 restaurant cities (in your personal opinion)?

Right now?

 

New York (across the scale, although recent seasons have been less interesting for this diner); Los Angeles (more for traditional foreign food than high-end dining);  San Francisco (a lot of food trends are launched there, and even the basics -- bread, coffee, salads -- tend to be done well); Portland (the city has something like 600 food trucks) and Chicago and Washington.

 

Oops, that six. But I'm running out of time.

 

Thanks for a lively 63 minutes, folks. I hope to see you back here next Wednesday at 11 a.m.  Ciao/Chow for now.

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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