Ask Tom: 2011 Spring Dining Guide

May 18, 2011

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema takes your questions on his 2011 Spring Dining Guide. This season, the Washington Post restaurant critic visited 15 local favorites and recent flops to see how they were holding up.

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

Does Jose Andres' decision to turn Cafe Atlantico into a temporary american food restaurant signal the end of Cafe Atlantico? Frankly, I'm totally uninterested in Brunswick stew or any of the dishes listed in the blog posts today. Why is Andres doing this?

   Because, as the chef told me, he wants to showcase American cuisine and support a good cause, the National Archives, and because he's long had the idea of expanding minibar in the building that currently houses Atlantico.

 

 Andres swears he's bringing the Cafe back. He just isn't sure in what form, or where, at this point.

 

  Happy Wednesday, gang.  It feels good to have the spring dining guide behind me, although I've already started checking out candidates for the 2011 fall collection. (Where should I go? What do you want to read about?)

 

Tell me what's on your mind today. I'm all ears, eyes and fingers.

Who came up with the idea to revisit these restaurants? If it was yours Tom its time to step aside. I have read every Fall and Spring Dining Guide since the WP first started printing them and I could find one restaurant that i wanted to go to or really cared about. In previous editions I could always find one. I would blame your editors for the idea or maybe the idea came from down on high. But the Spring Dining Guide sucked!

SNAP!

 

SLAP!

 

Thanks for your feedback, but the chance to take a fresh look at restaurants in a 'Then & Again" format has proven pretty popular this year and last. (It was my idea and I'll probably stick with it next spring.)

 

Are you telling me there wasn't ONE place in the whole bunch that didn't interest you? If so, what would you have preferred reading about or having updated?

I know you will get the usual grumbling of "why did you waste time on" or "why didn't you cover" but I loved your theme of Now & Then. A very valuable service.

Reader to the rescue!

 

Thanks for the kind words. I went to most of the restaurants twice (and some as many as three times) to arrive at my determinations. It proved to be a  good warm-up for my next project, the fall guide.

Tom, I love your reviews and your guides, but there's one issue where I, and I think a majority of your readers, vastly disagree with you. Portion size. You seem to hate places that have large portions...why is that exactly? If I pay a lot for a meal, I'm happy if I'm really full afterwards, or can take something home. Do you feel the same way when you use your own money to buy a meal?

I've never liked veritable buffets on a plate. I think they encourage diners to eat too much and they tend not to show the food well.  

 

Value I appreciate; caveman portions turn me off. Just my personal feeling, regardless of who is paying.

 

What say the chatters?

For the person traveling to Jacksonville - Mossfire Grill in Five Points is a great little spot for fish tacos and good margaritas. Biscotti's is one of my favorite places for lite American food (such a thing DOES exist). They offer a wonderful cheese plate, their brunch is excellent, and leave room for desert - their cakes are to die for - be prepared for a wait at brunch. Indochine is one of my all-time favorite Thai restaurants and is conveniently located downtown. Check out their botanical installations - my sister designed them.

Thanks for following up, sir (or ma'am). I could use one of those margaritas right now ...

people are always asking about tipping. Wouldn't he be better if restaurants just paid a proper wage & got rid of the whole tipping deal?

That's precisely what Derek Brown, the master cocktail maker at the Columbia Room, suggested in a column in the Post's Outlook section this past Sunday.

Tom, Your review of La Chaumiere was spot on. This has been my favorite restaurant since I first tried it about 20 years ago. It seems to have actually improved in the past 10 years. I was kind of glad you had ignored it for so long, because it is always busy (even on a recent Tuesday when I was there). Now, I will have trouble getting a reservation ! The entire staff at La Chaumiere does such a wonderul job, and Patrick Orange's cooking skills make dining there a pleasure. I noticed menus on the wall there signed by Julia Child and James Beard, who definitely knew good French food !

 After two meals in the beamed room for the spring dining guide, I decided La Chaumiere would be among those restaurants I'd patronize as a regular once I retire my notebook and bib. It's an old-fashioned place that still manages to feels fresh.

I am feeling old and out of the loop - what on earth is a "pop-up restaurant?"

It's a restaurant that opens on a temporary basis in what may or may not be an actual restaurant space. Someone could conceivably open a "pop-up" in a loft or a tent or an office building.

Tom, I agree. I hate huge portion sizes--it doesn't showcase the food, and it's just SO much food (see--Cheesecake factory). If I'm really hungry, I'll order a salad or an appetizer before my meal. To me, this isn't "value"--it's almost wasting food.

Or, as the original poster begs to differ, big food translates to a future meal.

Tom, I'm with you on portion size. But my husband and I get around that problem quite easily -- we get one appetizer and one entree, and that's usually enough for the both of us. And if people complain about the size of entree portions, perhaps they should get two appetizers instead.

Long-time readers know I'm *all* about appetizers.

 

They tend to be more interesting, because they're fewer bites. And chefs seem to get more creative with starters in my experience. If I wasn't paid to eat the entire menu, I'd focus mostly on the first acts.

Hi Tom, So, I saw the 1 star rating for Pizzeria Orso in your dining guide. If judging on pizza alone, I have to agree with you. The pizza does not compare to Edan's pizzas. However, Chris Nye has introduced some fabulous new items. On one visit I had a rapini ravioli with a lemon zabaglione sauce. This was divine and tasted like spring. I like to visit Pizzeria Orso simply for the specials now. Every pasta special I've had has been delish! I just wish they could do something about that pizza. I want this place to survive. Btw, loved seeing Cashions at 3 stars on the list. My husband and I frequent it quite often and most of our visits have been after the Ann Cashion's departure. We've enjoyed every experience. Everything's always high quality, extremely fresh, and unique. Always great service too!

I wasn't much impressed with more than one non-pizza dish when I visited -- and the pies need some major attention, as I wrote -- but Nye tells me he's coming out with some new dishes for summer and he's still getting the hang of the oven. (It's not as simple as it looks, pizza baking.)

I really appreciated your advice last week about how to talk to the manager about our rude servers. I have to admit, I could tell he thought I was a little uptight, but he told me the best thing to do was to request servers A, B, or C when I make my reservations in the future. I passed this on to my scheduler, and we had a much better experience on Monday. Thank you, hopefully I won't dread going there as much.

Problemed solved! Thanks for following up.

We like to invite friends over for dinner, but with 3 kids, once we get the house picked up, we don't have much time left to shop and cook. Can you recommend a few good restaurants that are "carry out" friendly (but not your typical pizza, Chinese, etc.) We live in upper NW DC, but will travel within reason!

I'm a fan of the charcoal-cooked chicken at Don Pollo at 7007 Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda. The bird is flavorful from its encounter with beer and lemon juice and a rub that includes cumin.  To go with the entree, there are warm tortillas, crisp yucca, earthy black beans and slaw. 

 

Fun fact: Francis Namin, the owner, also has the recently-reviewed Food Wine & Co. nearby.

 

Anyone care to share other options?

Perhaps a revised title for the "guide" is in order. Most people connote "guide" with a list of what's best or most notable - as in "a guide to Washington's best monuments". Though I love your reviews, I find the current guide format largely redundant for me. I would prefer, say, a "guide" to the best/newest in a particular cuisine, price range, etc. Just a thought. Continued kudos for the great reviews.

Duly noted.

Tom, we're heading to Europe soon, and do you have any recent info on restaurants in Amsterdam and Brussels? We'd love to do an Indonesian rice table in Amsterdam, and Belgian cuisine in Brussels, as long as it doesn't include mussels (allergic). Thanks!

In Amsterdam, which I've been to more recently, I thought Tempo Doeloe (Utrechtsestraat 75) offered one of the more enticing rice tables.

 

If you're a hot head, you'll love the old restaurant's parade of pickled vegetables, pork with peanut sauce, savory pancakes and chili-spiked beef, among other small plates.

Hi Tom, have you ever been to this restaurant, or heard anything interesting/good about it? It just won the James Beard award for best new restaurant, and based on a recommendation from a friend I booked dinner there for my SO's bday next month, hoping you have some insight. If not, thanks anyways, love your chats and fwiw we love love love Rasika too. Flattery will get you everywhere?

It will! It will!

 

I've lunched at the restaurant within the ABC Carpet & Home store at 888 Broadway and found a lot to like:  whole-wheat pizza decked out with dates and pancetta, shredded crab on toast, a beautiful salad of creamy avocado and soft carrots .... at noon, the three-course lunch for $25 is the best way to go.  The room feels as if it had been airlifted from San Francisco. Fun.

Ignore that second poster. I was just talking to my spouse yesterday about how great it was for you to revisit places, especially those that keep ancient positive reviews on the wall (!!) and use the fact that Bush I liked their food as marketing tactics. Good work, Tom. Plus, I now have a new place to try, as I had not remembered Villa Mozart.

I love hearing that. Can't wait to return to Villa Mozart.

 

Look, if you never mix things up, if you never attempt anything new, you're going to bore yourself *and* your audience.

 

Plus, I look at dining guides the way I look at cookbooks; if I find just two or three restaurants/recipes I can use, the guides/books are worth the price of purchase.

Tom: The wife earned a bonus from work which was motivation enough for us to get the parents to babysit and give us a celebratory date night. Where would you recommend in DC or Maryland for some top notch Italian cuisine? Good wine list, pleasant (quiet) ambience preferable. Thanks, as always!

The intimate Obelisk in Dupont Circle requires too much advance notice. Bibiana downtown is on the loud side. For both its cooking (focus on the pastas and fish) and its relative hush, Ristorante Tosca is where you should aim to celebrate your mate's bonus. Congrats.

Whenever Gene gets a cover story, he gets an extra Monday chat. Is the Post too cheap to tip you the extra C-note so that you can focus one chat on your excellent dining guide and another on your regular Q&A?

Just to set the record straight, the hosts of these chats are no longer paid extra to do them. The chats have become part of our regular workload. (Um, isn't that your deal, Gene Weingarten?)

 

I'll most likely host a separate chat for my fall guide after it comes out in October sometime. And I'll consider doing an additional chat after the spring 2012 guide comes out, if I make it that far.

 

My doc says I have to get my cholesterol down and get more Vitamin D. ( And all along I was thinking that a couple glasses of vino with dinner and strolls to and from restaurants would keep me fit. )

Really surprised by typos in your Spring Dining Guide ("revisted"???), and throughout the Post. I've been noticing a lot of sloppy editing lately. What gives?

I hate typos as much as you do. Where, exactly, did "revisted" appear?

 

Like a lot of publications, everyone at the WP is doing more with less.  But I still work for one of the most reputable brands and with some of the brightest, most conscientious reporters/editors/photographers/artists in the business.  We aim to please -- and get stuff right.

I appreciated your review of Meskerem. As a vegetarian, I never got why people said it had totally fallen off. But I guess it was because they were getting meat. The potato and pepper dish, the split peas and several others are all really good in my opinion, better than some of the more hyped Ethiopian places I've been to lately.

Yep. Vegetables are the way to go at the long-running Meskerem in Adams Morgan.

What does one do after getting home with a takeout order only to find that something significant is missing from the order?

It depends. How close to the restaurant are you? How hungry are you? Would it be possible for the restaurant to deliver the missing ingredient?

 

At the least, you should call the restaurant to let a manager know of the problem and get credit for what never made it into your order.

 

I don't do much take-out. What has been the experience of others in today's audience? Share away.

Your choice would be?

Both hotel restaurants are beautiful, both offer fine service, but the food at J & G Steakhouse is superior to that served at Plume in the Jefferson.

 

Go for the ribe-eye steak, the tempura calamari with chilies, the salmon cooked just so and served with German-style potato salad (it's warm and vinegary). Then cross your fingers and hope there's room on the roof for an after-dinner drink and one of the most exquisite (public) views in the city.

Tom I notice that you pay much more attention to Maryland than Virginia (with DC being the primary area, of course). Any chance that ratio could change to 50-50? I live out in the exurbs (northwest of Dulles) and just getting to Virginia close-in restaurants is hard enough, let alone Maryland ones. Thanks!

Really? I hear from Marylanders that I spend way more time in Virginia! And from District residents who would prefer I focus more on the restaurant scene in the city.

 

Can't win.

 

Did you notice that of the 15 places in the spring guide, four were from Virginia?

Does your review of Old Ebbitt Grill reflect only that restaurant or also the Clyde's chain? The menus are similar, of course, but does Clyde's Gallery Place have other things going for it? Thanks!!

My review of OEG was based solely on three meals at that restaurant, although the meals I've had at a few of its many siblings in recent years have not been memorable.

Tom, I have another item to add to the list of things that servers should never say/do: comment on the time of day after a customer orders a drink. It would have been fine if the server had just gossiped about my order back in the kitchen, but a customer shouldn't have to defend or explain their order to a server. Sometimes a girl just needs a drink before noon.

Silence isn't just golden, it can turn into a bigger gratuity, right?

HI Tom -- I'm looking for a newish place to hold a farewell dinner for about 15 of us (some from out of town) who will shortly be going in different ways as our company closes. I'd like a place where we can hear each other talk and reminisce, but not one so quiet that it feels funereal.. A private room would be nice, but good service in a main dining room would also be okay. Having seafood choices on the menu would be a plus, but I'd like some other choices too. Moderately expensive with a nice wine list is fine, but break-the-bank expensive wouldn't be. Hope you can help!

Newish you say? As in the past year or so? Quiet? A private room? Decent wine?

 

(A tall order!)

 

The first place that comes to mind is the Greek-accented Kellari Taverna and its impressive display of fish on ice. It's downtown and close to the Metro to boot.

Hi Tom, thanks for taking my question! I love your chat. I'm looking for a suggestion for my birthday dinner in June. I was considering Rasika-- love it-- but would like something more intimate and quieter. Some of my favorite celebratory dinners have included Corduroy, Blue Duck Tavern, La Chaumiere, Brasserie Beck, Jaleo, and Ris (among others- I'm getting so spoiled in this city.) I love every type of food and have no dietary restrictions. Any recommendations? Thanks!

Hmmmm. Haven't been to Corduroy or Blue Duck in awhile, except for brunch at the latter a few months ago.  Jaleo is bustling, delicious, but hardly quiet or intimate.  Of your choices, my vote goes to La Chaumiere.

Dear Tom, Friends and relatives are flying in for retirement dinner. We will be a group of 8 for dinner. Most of the party are only going to be in DC for one whole day. Where should we go to dinner for the good food, ambiance, local DC site-seeing and Metro-accessible?

Consider Central Michel Richard.

 

Why? It's a convivial dining room near the National Mall and easy to reach on foot, by cab or Metro.  Walk outside and you catch sight of the Capitol. 

 

Also: The name incorporates that of one of the city's top chefs, who puts out an interesting spread -- fried chicken, shrimp burgers, salads so beautiful they really oughta be in pictures -- that considers a variety of appetities.

Someone mentioned Clydes...used to be one of my favorite go-to places, but I had a string of bad meals at multiple locations. It's now off my list. Sad.

I'm hearing that from a lot of readers these days. Pity.

Think about it from the restaurant's side. In order to pay their servers a fair wage without tipping, they would have to drastically raise their menu prices. No doubt seeing $20 meal turn into a $24-$25 (up 20%) dollar meal would induce some sticker shock amongst patrons. Plus then you end up getting hit with more sales tax too. Good in theory, but in practice I think its tough.

Good point. Thanks for the background.

Just curious about how many places you revisited, in order to come up with this spring's list. In a relatively short list of restaurants, you hit an admirably wide bunch of cuisines and locales.

I went to 30 or so restaurants to come up with the 15 that made the cut. For different reasons, Eola, Vidalia, Rustico, Prime Rib, Assaggi, Eatonville, Passionfish and Petits Plats -- among others -- were experienced but not given any ink.

I worked my way through college at a chain pizza joint (midwestern, don't think it exists any more). Anyway, pizza IS really hard. A friend of mine who runs a bakery outside of Detroit built a wood-fired oven in his backyard and wanted to show it off by making pizzas for the neighborhood. He put too much sauce on, threw in the first two pies...and they exploded. Very cool to hear and watch. Not so good for the pies or the oven. I am always sympathetic to those who are trying to do cool things with pizza, even if the results aren't quite there yet.

Yep. I have every intention of checking back at Orso and chef Nye.

Neighborhood spot - Ted's Bulletin, love it, hate the take out. I love a block away and they've messed up our order on more than one occasion. They do a great job of packaging (chili on the side for the chili burger), but don't always count containers to make sure it's all in there. We've done a combo, the suck it up and deal, the walk back to get it fixed, the call to the manager. This has happened during busy times and when it's slower. We aren't doing take out from them anymore, and with the ridiculous lines, seems dine-in won't happen any time soon.

Attention, Ted's! Attention, Ted's!

Something not to say to me when removing my plate: "Wow! You ate it all. You must have really been hungry." I was too shocked to respond. A better choice might have been, "So glad you liked your meal."

The difference between a 15 percent and 20 percent tip there.

Enjoyed your review of the Sou'wester -- do you think they are trying to emulate Canlis (Seattle) in having the car ready at the front door when a guest departs? Obviously they have a ways to go before approaching the ability of Canlis, but at least they are trying! As you know from your Seattle time, Canlis has a nearly matchless record in delivering cars right at the time the guest reaches the front door, and only gets tripped up by identically dressed twins who arrive in different cars.

The chatter is referring to the last time I visited Sou'Wester. As I left the restaurant in the Manadrin-Oriental, my coat was waiting for me at the host desk and my car was magically idling out front --  while dozens of  people, including a fair number of VIPS, were kept waiting. It was comical.

 

Canlis is a restaurant I know well from my days covering the food scene in Seattle. The restaurant provided exceptional service both in and out of the dining room. A visitor's car was always out front, ready to go, when the diner was exiting the door. I never figured out how Canlis was able to do that for so many customers, but it did. Nice touch, and it obviously made an impression.

Sorry for all of the negativity towards you today, but my partner and I thought the Spring Dining Guide was simply divine. Thanks for your hard work - and we understand the reasons but it sure is a shame we can't see a picture of you! Ciao.

Ah, thanks.

 

I hardly call what I'm reading today "negative," though. You should have listened to my voice mail over the weekend! (I'm smiling, by the way. In this business, you have to have thick skin. And I do.)

Well, yes, prices of individual dishes would go up, but if I were at a restaurant that made it very clear I was not supposed to tip I think I would be okay with the fact that the end total would be the same as if I were paying lower prices and tipping. They'd just have to make that VERY clear from the beginning.

Wish I had thought of that. Thanks.

I'm planning a divorce anniversary dinner for my ex-wife. Where can I go to get lousy, overpriced food, with indifferent service, in a noisy, crowded room?

I am SO CLOSE to giving you a straight answer to a funny question, but .... I won't.

The difference in what people want in portions might have something to do with how often they eat out. You eat out every day, so for you restaurants are your daily meals. Who wants to be overly full every day after dinner? But if you go out only a couple times a month, you want to feel like you've gotten every penny's worth. Being really full is a very obvious way to say "I've splurged."

I think you're on to something there. 

 

Someone I've taken out a few times here at the paper reported back to colleagues that "Tom just picks his food." 

 

That's not exactly true -- I'm not so disciplined that I don't eat all of something truly delicious now and then -- but I am mindful of the reality I always have another three courses (or more) ahead of me within a few hours.

So since Meskerem doesn't get a good review, what would you recommend for Ethiopia restaurant? I didn't have any qualms about the Now & Then approach. Unfortunately none of the restaurants appealed to me though. That is a combination of location, ratings and well it is hard to get out with three little kids.

I love, love, love Ethiopic -- but it's on H St. NE.

Where can one get a tasty, moderately-priced meal near Arena Stage in SW DC? The new Jose Andres cafeteria in the theater is blah or worse. The cardboard plates and bowls don't help.

Did you notice Sou'wester in the guide?

The Washington Post received my business on Sunday JUST so I could have your guide in my hands to read. It's just not the same to read online! My husband and I trust your reviews and realize that although we like to think we've been to many of DC's finest restaurants, we've got a ways to go with these classics you reviewed. And I'll be sure to steer my summer guests away from OEG when they ask for advice! Thanks so much! --A very loyal fan

Bless you, dear reader! Made my day.

If you had to pick just one restaurant as the "Must Dine this Spring" restaurant, which one would it be and why?

From my guide or from the new crop or ....?

 

From the guide? Cashion's Eat Place or Villa Mozart. I'd be happy to spend my own money at both.

 

From what's new on the scene? Fiola is an important addition, for sure, and so, in their own ways, are Todd Gray's Watershed and the Atlas Room, both in emerging neighborhoods.

 

 

That's a wrap, folks. Thanks for your participation. See you back here next Wednesday.

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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