Ask Tom: Rants, raves and questions on the DC dining scene

Aug 14, 2019

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

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

It's being reported that the space will be a Cheesecake Factory. Please say it aint' so -- my office is a block from there, and the hordes of high school senior trips will be on the march! Really, it will be disappointing to see a chain like that go in, though I guess it shouldn't be unexpected so close to the White House. Thank goodness for the new Via Sophia up the street!

The horror! The HORROR! I have nothing against a chain restaurant replacing Jeff Buben's creative American dining destination -- hey, some of my best friends are chain restaurants! -- but the Cheesecake Factory wouldn't be even my 30th choice for that prime location.

 

HAVE YOU HEARD? Aaron Silverman tells me he quietly launched Roses at Home a month ago. It's a catering company with "zero employees," he says, and a menu that taps into all three of his restaurants: Rose's Luxury, Little Pearl and Pineapple and Pearls. The "big small company," as he puts it, can do something as casual as coffee and donuts or as special as a wedding or dinner in your home. "It's like the pop-up days!"

 

HAVE YOU HEARD 2: Downtown's Bibiana is poised to close the end of the month so that owner Ashok Bajaj can rebrand the space as Modena, "Italian-inspired," says the restaurateur, but broader than its name and general concept (the region of Emilia-Romagna) suggest.

 

"Bibiana is 10 years old," says Bajaj. "It did very well" but the restaurant faces more competition than ever.  The dining venue will be refreshed with new art, blue-green walls and planters over the bar. "It will be a little more intimate inside," promises the restaurateur, who hopes to introduce Modena Sept. 9.

 

A familiar face will be taking charge of the kitchen: John Melfi, who used to work at the Oval Room, also owned by Bajaj, near the White House. The chef's plans include an antipasti cart, from which diners can choose three, five or seven little dishes, and a dish from his childhood: pasta fagioli as his grandmother used to make it.

 

 

Happy Hump Day, everyone. How can I help you today?

Hi Tom! So I went to I Ricchi last night (you put it in my head earlier this year mentioning it in your lists of places you were digging right now), and while I enjoyed it enough and didn't participate in restaurant week, I just noticed this on their website and it turns me off a bit... "Here we are again. That time of year when we open up the restaurant so EVERYONE can experience what we do here. The prices are totally unreasonable for three courses, but we are happy to welcome all those who have not fled to the beach or points beyond." I read this as incredibly condescending and that they are usually too good for "everyone." Is there pressure for places to participate in restaurant week? Honestly, I don't care for it as I'd rather spend my money on what I want to eat not the courses a restaurant picks (plus I don't always want 3 courses, or at least not 3 traditional courses) but if this is their attitude, why participate? (Shout out to Eric at the bar though, he holds court well there)

As I was reading your post, I thought "A restaurant might THINK this, but a restaurant would never commit those words to print." But sure enough, I Ricchi did! Whoever wrote the "peasants welcome!" needed an editor to stop him (or her) from biting the hands they feed them. 

What is the usual reaction when you give a mediocre/negative First Bite preview from the restaurant? Do they reach out to ask you to return, try to get more info about their shortcomings, or just claim that you're wrong?

It depends on the restaurant. Some places reach out to ask questions or apologize, some I never hear from.

 

While I don't  share what I'm going to write -- good or bad -- when I'm fact-checking a column with an owner or chef,  I'm open to talking to them after publication should they care to.

For the diner asking for downtown Atlanta suggestions (last week, but maybe they haven't come to our fair city yet), I recommend Soto Soto in Inman Park. It's not far from downtown, an easy cab ride, and it's an interesting neighborhood. I was there in May and July. The only problem I had with the restaurant was very crowded seating for our July dinner. When I got up to go to the bathroom, I had to be careful not to put my rear end on my neighbors' table. The food is great, prices reasonable, service friendly, and we enjoyed talking to our neighbors.

Thanks for following up. Another chatter chimed in with a suggestion for Porta Delgada, based on a request from last week:

 

Porta Delgada recommendation

I have Wednesday meetings so I read the chat later in the day. Last week someone asked for a Porta Delgada Azores restaurants and I'll post early for this week's chat. We had a good meal at Antifteatro - it's actually a place run by culinary students. Go down to the harbor and out the central stone quay. There is a big stone stadium seating like monstrosity. If you walk around the right side you will see that underneath is this restaurant. I don't know if you can just walk in, we were a tour group with reservations. There are many other dining places down there at the harbor too. But if you can get into Anfiteatro do try it!

 

 

Other posters in today's audience are asking for restaurant advice for Oslo, Jacksonville, Denver, San Francisco, El Paso and Montreal (for a vegetarian). If I'm not careful, this could turn into a Travel chat.

Hi Tom, I made reservations at a restaurant before it announced that it was participating in RW for a birthday dinner. When I saw they were they were going to have a RW menu, I emailed them to ask whether their regular menu was going to be available, as my guest and I wanted to do their regular five-course tasting menu. I received a reply that yes, they were going to offer their regular menu in addition to the RW menu. Today I get a phone call from them confirming my reservation (three days in advance of the actual date) where I was informed that because it is RW, two diners would be expected to be done in an hour. I told the representative that my guest and I were not planning on ordering from the RW menu and asked whether we would still be expected to finish our meal in an hour. The representative insisted that because it was RW they needed us to vacate the table after an hour. I asked how long their five-course meal usually takes for two people, the answer was about an hour and a half to two hours. After I expressed my confusion as to why I would be rushed out after an hour for a meal that regularly lasts much longer, a manager took over the call. When the manager got on the phone they said they could "move things around so we could eat at a more leisurely pace." I appreciate that they were eventually able to address my concern, but honestly, the whole thing just left a bad taste in my mouth. I know how busy places can get during RW (I love RW! I use it to try new places and take note of whether a place takes it "seriously" or they just deign to participate, but that's another subject, altogether...), but this interaction just left me confused. Ultimately I cancelled the reservation and am taking my guest out to celebrate their birthday elsewhere because frankly we want to enjoy the evening without worrying that the staff is resenting our longer-than-one-hour dinner. Are other people being informed outright that there are time limits on their meals, RW or otherwise? Am I being overly sensitive? Sorry for the long question and thank you for hosting these chats, Tom! I look forward to them every week! Sincerely, Can't Eat THAT Fast

Wow, that takes some chutzpah, telling diners who are clearly going to spend more than they would on the Restaurant Week promotion to beat it in an hour when a tasting menu obviously takes longer to experience. I would have cancelled my reservation and reserved elsewhere, too. (Of course, we're eager to know which restaurant this was ....)

I find the suggestion customers should attempt to divine the true meaning of a restaurant’s closing time ridiculous. If a restaurant wants stop seating people at 9:00 PM and close at 11:00 PM, then that should be their stated policy. I refuse to feel bad about asking an open business to provide service.

Roger that, but sometimes real life intervenes. As when it's raining cats and dogs and no diner has stepped foot inside a restaurant in an hour, so a manager decides to close up early instead of paying a full staff to stand around. Or whatever. Can you see situations where a business might want to wrap up early?

Just a small note - I've seen you reference I'm Eddie Cano as being "near Chevy Chase Circle" a few times. It's actually a mile from the circle. But while I'm on the topic, we've enjoyed the restaurant, which we were encouraged to try thanks to your review. The food is good and the service is really friendly. It's a nice addition to the neighborhood.

Duly noted.

I proposed to my wife at WT, so seeing it close (and become a CHEESECAKE FACTORY!) is pretty tough. We're going for lunch on Sunday, and judging by Open Table, this might be one of their last days. Is there anything we should know or do dining in a soon to close restaurant? I'd also love to get something as a keepsake - can you think of anything you'd ask to keep aside from maybe a menu?

Like a wine glass or a steak knife or a chunk of the epic bar? I'd settle for a selfie with the chef (Jeff Buben if he happens to be there). The last day of restaurant service is Aug. 18, per the web site.

Hi Tom, I am moving back to DC after a two-year absence and I feel like I have a lot to catch up on, dining-wise! What have I missed being gone these last two years? I want to explore the Wharf area (last time I was there it was just a giant construction site) but is there anything else that you can recommend to get my DC food scene up to date? Thank you!

Start your reunion by checking out my spring dining guide, devoted to 30 openings in the past year. As for the  Wharf, you'll want to sample Kaliwa for pan-Asian fare and fun cocktails, Mi Vida for vibrant Mexican fare and Del Mar for when you win the lottery -- or simply want to see how an Italian maestro does Spanish.

Hi Tom, I recently visited Via Sophia at 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday. Although completely empty, the hosts said we could not be seated inside because of reservation commitments. My family and I ate outside instead. But, while leaving 1 1/2 hours later, we noticed the restaurant was still nearly completely empty. Why do D.C. restaurants often have this policy--would they rather have a completely empty restaurant than risk the possibility of juggling walk-ins with reservations? Steve

I can imagine a number of scenarios for not seating you in what appeared to be an empty dining room.

 

You don't mention the size of your party, but perhaps the restaurant felt it couldn't serve that number of people and get the table back in time for the reservation holders. Or perhaps a number of reservation holders were late to their commitment? 

 

Bottom line: A "empty" dining room isn't always what you think it is.

We just got a new puppy, which has us wondering which restaurants in the DMV welcome dogs. I presume we'll need to sit on a patio, but do you have recommendations for dog-friendly establishments? Thanks for all you do for us, the dining public.

Centrolina in CityCenter welcomes dogs on its patio, as does Art & Soul on the Hill.  Other pet-friendly dining destinations around town include Colada Shop off 14th St. NW and . Readers, feel free to add to the list.

HI Tom, My wife and I will be staying at the Omni Shoreham next week for a conference and were hoping to visit some of the restaurants that I’ve been reading about. Are there any restaurants within walking distance, say one half mile or so, that you would recommend? We enjoy all types of food. I’m considering LebaneseTaverna, Lapis, Petits Plats, Johnny’s Half Shell, and Tail Up Goat. My preference is to walk to the restaurant but we will have a car for anything that we should not miss. You mentioned Buck’s Fishing & Camping several times so that might be worth the trip. Anything exceptional worth a short drive?

Johnny's Half Shell and Tail Up Goat are sure bets in Adams Morgan. I'd add to your options the Middle Eastern-themed Sababa in Cleveland Park, which I recently featured in my monthly dispatch of favorite restaurants.

I totally missed last week's chat and forgot to ask but do you (or any chatters) know of any Amish restaurants/buffets in Northern VA? My husband and I have been wanting to go. Ideally I'd like to find a restaurants and maybe a shop where you could get furniture/afghan's etc.

Sorry, I don't have a clue. Readers?

Hello Tom - I'm planning an office celebration. There are 10 of us with a $2000 budget. I'm interested in private or semi-private dining options, or perhaps a chef's table. Punjab Grill and Officiana are on the list based on your recent reviews and chats. The CT at Blue Duck Tavern looks interesting too. Any others? DC/NoVA/Nat. Harbor all fair game.

I once reserved the long communal table at Buck's Fishing & Camping for my SO's birthday and everyone loved it: great lighting, cozy seating, cool flowers, family-style food for the most part. Add it to your list.

I wouldn’t overlook New Heights - less than 500 feet away. Some of this city’s best chefs have been through that kitchen yet it gets very little attention.

Some of the best chefs in the city have indeed passed through the kitchen there. But the food isn't of the quality it used to be.

PLEASE don't inflict a new puppy on your fellow diners. Wait until the dog is older and completely trained and housebroken.

Fair point.

I'm meeting up with a group of friends in Old Town and am looking for a nice place to have dinner. One of the friends is very into Michelin stars (the rest of us don't care about that if the food is good). Any type of food, no one is a picky eater. Thanks!!

You won't find any meals worthy of Michelin in Old Town, but you *can* count on a proper steak and attentive service at the just-opened Oak Steakhouse, the subject of today's First Bite column in the Food section. Be sure to find space for the very good corn agnolotti and the creamy peanut butter semifreddo.

Hi Tom - I am trying to pick a restaurant for a birthday dinner (for 2 people), and Bad Saint is one of the few big names in DC restaurants I have yet to try. I am a pescatarian - do you think Bad Saint is worth the wait if I'm not eating pork? If not, any other recommendations?

If you have yet to try Bad Saint, now's the time. Owner Genevieve Villamora says the current menu is 2/3 pescatarian, although the list changes frequently. Specific questions about the food can be directed to info@badsaintdc.com

I was at a restaurant and asked the waiter how a kind of pasta was made. He joked "I dont know. It comes in a container from Trader Joes." Then he laughed and said he was joking and explained it to me. But it made me wonder how often dishes are prepackaged and just heated. I am naturally skeptical so now when I see "made fresh daily" it makes me think it was made fresh in some warehouse that morning and then shipped out to customers. Is there a way to know for sure when reading a menu?

In most cases, I think you can rest assured that things a restaurant says it makes itself are in fact made on site. There are exceptions, of course, and it pays to ask the right question.  Subway, for instance, BAKES the bread it serves, but the dough comes into the store pre-made and frozen, last I heard.

Tom, I’m sure you don’t need this reminder, but Nasime is always a great choice for a nice dinner in Old Town. (Caveat that I’m not sure how big the “group” in question is, because it’s a very small restaurant.)

Yep, that's why I didn't mention it. Plus, it's a little spare and you'd need a reservation.

Ever see the movie Waiting...? There's a scene that depicts exactly this situation. Everything is cleaned, vaccuumed, staff doing paperwork, one server there to hopefully leave in 5 minutes, not a guest has been in the restaurant in a while... Then a deuce walks in at 9:58 and everyone has to stay and extra hour. Some people say "Well that's part of the job," and there's truth to that, but look at it from the side of the staff, too. That's all.

Having been a waiter in another life, my sympathies fall with the staff.

The closest I can think of is a Cracker Barrell near Dumfries or Sterling

That crossed my mind as well. (CB is my favorite casual chain. It's the only brand I gave an "A' to in my survey a few years back.)

Have a rare double date night this Saturday and we’re thinking seafood. Not very adventurous on the sushi front and have already done Fiola Mare (which we loved). Any other recommendations???

On the casual side, Pesce fits the bill. The cozy Dupont Circle restaurant lists its daily catches (octopus, sardines, whole grilled fish, etc.) on a roving chalkboard menu. There's also Salt Line near Nationals Park for seafood charcuterie, fish stews, lobster rolls and a water view. 

I hate to put the restaurant on blast, but it was Gravitas.

OUCH. I'm sure chef Matt Baker has his reasons, and I'd like to hear them.

Hi Tom, I figured persistence is key with my question....where can this LA transplant find a delicious bowl of matzo ball soup and/or a traditional Jewish deli in the DMV? Thank you so much!

The chicken noodle soup at Unconventional Diner might not be the bowl of tradition you're after, but it comes with a scallion matzo ball. Maybe a chatter can hep?

Like the earlier poster, I find that I can't fit into the RW menu. Since we rarely get dessert - not because we don't want it, but because we don't have room for it - I can order an appetizer and entree off a restaurant's regular menu and spend less than $35. It's a bummer, but the RW menus that have been available to look at online are generally uninteresting.

Not sure what menus you're looking at, but some places are really doing the deal right by offering dishes they typically serve and food considered to be signatures.

 

An idea, since so many readers tell me they don't want dessert for different reasons: how about restaurants offering a glass of wine in the place of a third course? I'd bite!

The DC area is hardly a deli-lover's paradise (I'm still missing DGS) but my go-to for matzo ball soup is still Parkway Deli in Silver Spring.

Ah, thanks for the memory jog!

I don't see why this simple issue seems to take on complexity with each passing week. It is very simple for a restaurant to post a policy of last seating at ___ p.m., last orders at ____ p.m. and closing at ___ p.m.

Good idea, but like I said, sometimes real life intervenes.

Vin Papillion may be part of the Joe Beef empire, but every time I've been there the menu has been full of really interesting vegetable dishes. It's all small plates and the menu is written daily on a chalk board. Also, the Syrian restaurants Alep has a lot of vegetable options and a great wine list.

Reader to the rescue!

Hi Tom, My husband and I will be celebrating our 3rd wedding anniversary in late September, and my folks have agreed to watch our son for the night! We live in NoVA and want to head into the city after work for a nice dinner with great wine. We are fairly adventurous with food and the only preference we have is that it might be nice to do a wine pairing type of dinner. Can you recommend anything? Thanks so much!

Not sure what your budget or style is, so I'm going to throw out Bresca for creative American on 14th St. NW, the Dabney for Mid-Atlantic fare in cozy environs and Marcel's in the West End for top-drawer French and a hushed dining room. All would be able to provide you with interesting wines by the glass.

Hi Tom, I know you've addressed this before, but remind me of the best approach. Q: How do you handle a fine dining restaurant that chooses to seat you at the least desirable table in a room or outside of their main dining room just because you’re a single diner? I was disappointed once again by a lovely restaurant in a southern Virginia inn that did not seat me – a single – in their main dining room as warranted by the reservation. I was shown to the ‘sun room' right off the bar where they seat folks with no resos. (I then requested the outside dining space since it was a lovely evening.) The cavernous sun room had no other diners in it, just two high tables of four each, and was serviced by the bartender. It could not match the décor and ambiance provided by the main dining room. I was clearly a dispensable reservation. I am getting tired of challenging those who seat me to find a better table …

All you need to say is "Oh, I'd much prefer a seat in the main dining room, if you don't mind." If there's any issue, you can add, "I booked a table so I could sit were the action is," or something similar. You do *not* need to take the first spot offered to you.

I actually found it to be kinda funny! But I'm also a longtime restaurant employee and witness the chaos from the inside 2 weeks of the year...

Yes, I figure it was written with a smile, but I can also see where the joke might fall flat for its intended audience.

definitely go! i've been many times as a pescetarian and it's FABULOUS!

Thanks for the feedback.

There's a perfectly nice restaurant in my small Minnesota city that has its hours listed on the door as: 11:00 to Close But they don't tell you when Closing time is. I feel like this would make some chatters' heads explode

(KA-BOOM!)

There is a restaurant inside the Laurel Dutch Market, I've had breakfast there and it was fine (hard to get too enthused about Amish food). OP would be better off making a big day of it and going up to Lancaster PA area to hit one of those big buffet barns.

Thanks for chiming in. I concur: go to the source.

For some reason, I have a craving for the traditional garlic-buttery snails. Any recommended places to go?

The best in recent memory are the escargots at the always-busy Le Diplomate on 14th St. NW. A bowl of garlicky, buttery bliss goes for $16.

 

That's a wrap for this morning. Thank you for keeping me entertained for the last 60 minutes. Over and out! See you next Wednesday, I hope.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Tom Sietsema has been the Washington Post food critic since 2000. In leaner years, he worked for the Microsoft Corporation, where he launched sidewalk.com; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; the San Francisco Chronicle; and the Milwaukee Journal. A graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, he has also written for Food & Wine, Gourmet, GQ, Travel & Leisure and other national publications. In 2016, he received an award from the James Beard Foundation for his series identifying and rating the "10 Best Food Cities in America" the previous year.
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