Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema discusses the DC dining scene

Apr 27, 2011

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema answers your questions, listens to your suggestions and even entertains your complaints about Washington dining.

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Hi Tom. Do you have a gaggle of ethnic friends that you bring with you when reviewing these types of restaurants? I am VNmese and very impressed by how well you know our food. BTW, what does a person have to do to be one of those lucky friends of yours?

I require dining companions less for their input than for their stomachs. In order to sample the full range of a menu, it's helpful to have other bodies at the table. You can imagine how silly it would look if I was alone and ordered 10 dishes. 


At the end of the process, the Washington Post is paying me -- not those who accompany me to restaurants -- for my opinion.


All that said, I enjoy eating in traditional foreign restaurants (I dislike the word "ethnic") with people who are familiar with the food that's being served. In my many years as a hired mouth, I've experienced/researched a lot of foreign food on my own, but I  apppreciate the perspective some natives bring to the table, so  to speak.


I have about 40 people I dine out with on a regular basis. That sounds like a lot, until you consider that I eat out 10-12 meals a week and can't tap the same folks all the time (they have lives, after all). But I'm always adding new faces to the mix: people I meet at parties, friends of friends, coleagues from here in the newsroom.


Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me today.  Let's get started.

In previous chats, you said you sometimes prefer to eat at a restaurant's bar. So I was wondering if you ever get asked by the staff to change seats while eating (not just sipping on a drink). I was on my own Saturday and ate a three course meal at the bar of one of your very starry restaurants. While I was in the middle of my entree, a barback or waiter exclaimed, "Sir, could you please slide to your left or right so this couple may sit." I hadn't noticed the couple, nor did the barback/waiter say anything else to me before or after the "request." I moved to the next stool and also moved my entree, wine, bread, and Irish butter. The couple was very nice and we made smalltalk for the duration of my entree and their desserts. But am I right to think that I was treated a bit rudely by this staff member? Or am I being persnickety?

I've been both The Single, asked to move seats at the bar, and The Couple, grateful that a solo customer slid over  for us. 


Sounds to me as if you thought your server was brusque. A good restaurant tends to finesse any request to change seats by helping The Single move his glasses, utensils and food and thanking the patron for being accommodating.

Tom, The new space that Fiola has opened is nice, but curious to see that the kitchen is so hard to peek in, except for the two small windows. I wonder if you can ask Chef Fabio why they designed the kitchen that way, as opposed to an open kitchen. BTW, we really enjoyed the food there and the service was exceptional! I felt like a VIP and it was my first time dining there.

You are not the only one to sing the praises of the city's latest Italian restaurant.


I sent your question to Mr. Trabocchi, who emailed the following response:

"We did face structural issues that prevent us from a fully open kitchen, also we focus more on changing substantially the layout of the Dining Room to achieve a new and more contemporary feel."

Tom, last year, my Marine husband was just returning from deployment in Afghanistan and I had reservations at CityZen and wanted to have an option for lunch. You suggested Oyamel and we ended up at Hooters for crab legs..remember? Well, he, more than likely, is deploying again soon and we are celebrating our anniversary Thursday. We would like to eat Italian that night so I made a reservation at Tosca. What do you think? Did we make the right choice or......? Thanks, Tom!

So, where does that leave you two for lunch this year ... Camelot or Archibald's?


I jest, I jest.


Tosca is a fine choice for dinner. Its risotto is a standard-bearer.  You can also catch a great piece of fish there. Have fun.

Hi Tom, My boyfriend and I are going to Baltimore for a weekend in June. Any good places to check out - I see that you recommend Charleston and maybe the Bluegrass Tavern? Anything that you highly recommend? We like everything basically. Thanks!

I'd add to the mix Woodberry Kitchen and the Black Olive, which I'm revisiting for the spring guide May 15.

Tom: Headed to Berlin in a couple of weeks. Looked for a Postcard but couldn't find. Any ideas from you or chatters?

I visited last year, but never ended up writing anything about the food scene in one of Europe's most fascinating cities. You MUST include the food hall, KaDaWe, in your plans. There are a hundred options for lunch there. For something trendier, book a table at the innovative Facil.  (Sorry, I don't have my notes with me here, but both those places made delicious impressions.)

How many times do you visit a restaurant before writing a First Bite, and how long do you give a new restaurant to iron out any kinks? I'm curious because I dined at Fiola on their second day open. I agree with you about the comfortable decor, polished service, and beautiful food. But every course I ate left the table half-finished, at best. The short ribs I got were mostly fat, and the appetizer and desert just had overpowering flavors. Lots of items were comped by the gracious staff, and I told myself that I would return once you gave the all-clear. But 4 star potential? Was my one bad experience just a fluke? (I hope it was, because I felt that Fiola had a lot of potential.)

I try to get to First Bite contenders, especially Big Deals, within a week or so of their opening and I typically go just once (with companions), since the column is a snapshot rather than a review based on three or more visits. 


After that, I tend to give a new restaurant a month or so before I begin making multiple visits for a critique in the Sunday Magazine.


I should point out that that four-star reference to the new Fiola in today's preview was made by a friend of mine and not me.  I used his praise as an example of the excitement surrounding Fabio Trabocchi's maiden restaurant.

This is in response to last weeks discussion of how servers address patrons. As a server, when I'm tempted to let "you guys" slip out, I simply replace it with "everyone." ("How is everyone doing this evening?"). This works particularly well with groups, but if the table consists of a couple then "How are you two doing?" works as well. I also agree with the commenter who suggested using "anyone." (Would anyone like coffee?) I've always been trained to avoid using "folks" as it pretty much falls in the same category as "hun," which brings up images of a 24-hour-diner. And "you all" too easily slips into the informal "y'all." Can everyone agree on the "everyone/anyone" solution?

Everyone probably can't, but I appreciate your solution to the diner irritant.


Cased closed (at least for the rest of the hour).

Hi Tom - Couldn't participate in the chat yesterday live, but wanted to write in when I saw you had never eaten at Guy Savoy in Vegas. Hands down, best meal I ever had. We liked it even better than The French Laundry, which was just a little too stuffy and orchestrated for us. The service at Guy Savoy is fantastic, even down to the guy serving bread. The staff are personable without being overbearing. I wouldn't pay to go back to the French Laundry (it was great, glad I went, I can check the box and move on), but I would absolutely pay to dine at Guy Savoy again. No, not frequently, it was incredibly expensive, but worth every penny. I've never been to the one in Paris, but the one in Vegas is truly outstanding. While I can't remember all the details of the food we had (we had a tasting menu, and a fair amount of wine), the overall experience still rates high in my memory.

Good to know. I'll add the Vegas branch of Guy Savoy to my To Do list.

My wife has offered up that a cooking class would make a nice mother's day gift. While I appreciate the hint, I am clueless on this one. Any thoughts?

Is there any type of cuisine or a technique your wife is curious about? Does she want a one-time thing or something on-going? There are a LOT of cooking classes being taught out there.

Anything new and interesting to recommend in either Silver Spring or Wheaton?

Do you like Caribbean food?  Island Hut in Wheaton sits in what looks like a rehabilitated diner and serves strapping, satisfying portions of  jerk chicken and goat curry, among other island favorites. The tiny eatery also makes its own sorrel, the sweetly-spiced, Christmas-red drink of Jamaica.

Are there any restaurants in DC/VA/MD that offer Opus One by the glass? Thought you or someone in the audience might know. Thanks!

Has anyone seen the famous collaboration between Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi offered by the 6-ounce pour in the area?

good morning Tom, Great recommendation for brunches in the past (Birch/Barley and Blue Duck) but this weekend we're looking for a solid food brunch with exciting and delicious adult beverages. B/Barley had a few but they shortcut the ingredients last time so we'd like to try somewhere new. Dc would be preferable but we're pretty open to the surrounding area. thanks much from Round Hill, Va.

If you don't care about ambiance -- or brunch on the late side -- I heartily recommend The Passenger on 7th St. NW.


It's best-known as a bar (well, TWO bars if you count the chic Columbia Room in back) run by brothers Derek and Tom Brown.  Their Hair of the Dog drinks list is short, but the servers can whip up alternatives similar to the elegant cocktails served in the Columbia Room at night.


The caveat: The Passenger doesn't open til 2 p.m. on Sunday.

I've dined recently at two highly rated DC restaurants with open kitchens. At the first restaurant, I observed the sous chef with his hands, sans gloves, toss a mixed green salad, slice a lamb sandwich, plate potato chips and use his blackberry to read and send messages without any handwashing in between. Fortunately, a gloved assistant handled my meal. At the second restaurant, I sat at the bar and observed a kitchen assistant wipe her nose and and mouth with her bare hand, then handle multiple food items including my salmon sandwich. I advised the waiter that I simply could not eat what had been served to me and the reason why. He apologized profusely and compensated me for my meal. I also advised the hostess who said she would inform the Executive Chef. These are two of my favorite restaurants. WWTD? What Would Tom Do?

You did the right thing, both by registering your complaint in a timely fashion (then and there) and by sharing your concern with a wider audience here.


We all need to be reminded to follow protocol now and then. Let's hope your anecdotes become fodder for this afternoon's restaurant staff meetings around the area.

good morning Tom, I'm taking my beautiful wife into the city (we're out in Loudoun county, Va.) for the weekend and it looks like it might be nice weather. Any suggestions for lunch/brunch al fresco (for both Saturday and Sunday) If you've got a "non-al fresco" recommendation that you're keen on please share that too. We don't get downtown that often and want this to be special. Showed her the dim sum menu at the Source (I know it's one of your favs) and it got nixed unfortunately but other than that there's really no restrictions. Also - haven't solidified Dinner plans for Saturday night yet - might be difficult at this late hour but any ideas on that one? Probably Italian or Seafood. Thank you for all the great fun on these chats and the responses to everyone's questions. -yours in Leesburg

Good morning, Leesburg.


Al fresco for brunch: Think Blue Duck Tavern, which features a splish-splashing fountain; Tabard Inn, wrapped in brick walls and greenery; or Poste, which  has a lovely courtyard to recommend it.


As for dinner Saturday, try either Bibiana downtown or Casa Nonna in Dupont Circle for Italian or Black Salt in the Palisades or J & G Steak (never mind the name) in the W Hotel for seafood.

I'll be eating at Fiola soon! I appreciate the lack of an open kitchen, which too often is way too noisy for me.

I think it depends on the kitchen, really. Some are noisier than others.

I gave my daughter & son-in-law gift cards from Sur La Table and let them choose their own cooking class. They had done the cupcake class & enjoyed it.

Great idea: options!

There is a shockingly delicious hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in Berlin - I just looked it up, it's "Maria Bonita Mexican Restaurant" at Danziger Straße 33. It's near the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. I had some mole chicken enchiladas there a couple of years ago that blew my mind. Better to go on a day with good weather, because there's more seating outside than inside.

Personally, I want to eat the cuisine of the country I'm visiting, but thanks for the suggestion. (This is coming from someone who tried tacos and margaritas on a trip to Beijing, I should add!)

Hi Tom, Went to Galileo III last Thursday. It was wonderful! Nancy is charming, the place is very pretty and the food was awesome. And the three course meal at $55 is a bargain (well, relatively speaking!) So why am I writing? It was pretty empty and I'm concerned about what that means. Why do you think that is, Tom? Thanks, love you!

Did you catch my colleague Tim Carman's recent blog post about the staff defections at the restaurant?   


 Galileo III is capable of turning out some fine cooking, but in order to attract (or keep) customers, a restaurant has to have trained staff --- servers, cooks, sommeliers -- in place. 


I think some diners are put off by the chef's issues (I'm conflicted myself). Plus, as I pointed out in my recent review, the dining landscape has changed a lot since Roberto Donna's glory days. There are, for instance, many more great places to eat than there were a decade ago in Washington.

I'm a former Alexandria resident passing through town for a few hours on Friday. Where should my husband and I grab lunch in Old Town? We like all cuisines, will be dressed nicely, yet casually, and may be dining later than the usual lunchtime crowd, after 1:00. Someplace new to us, that has opened up within the past 6 years, would be great, but not mandatory.

It's been around for more than six years, but Vermilion continues to seduce me with its interesting modern American cooking: lamb burgers, blackened catfish, buttermilk fried chicken and mackerel with wild ramps and warm potato salad grace the current lunch menu.  Chef Tony Chittum also has a Power Lunch Box that includes a choice of soup or salad with any main dish for $22. 

I second the KaDeWe suggestion. Also, Fellas in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood is fantastic, especially the white asparagus soup!

This time of the year, white aspargus (spargel, in German) is everywhere in Berlin. Count me a fan.

Hi Tom - I'm going to be in Chinatown/Penn Quarter area around lunchtime on Saturday after an event. Any suggestions (a few would be appreciated!) as to where my girlfriend and I can eat? We like most food and have no allergy restrictions, and fine with spending around 15 - 20 dollars on each of us. I haven't eaten in this area in a long time so am really at a loss. Thanks!

I think I've eaten at the bar at Jaleo more than at any other counter in the city in my time here in Washington. Those small plates of Spanish flavors never fail to please me.


For something even faster, and more moderate, you might try the new fast food Indian spot, Merzi, on 7th St. NW, or the stylish Pho DC, specializing in Vietnamese noodle soup, on H St. NW.

Tom - how do you feel about eating food products, such as foie gras, knowing the inhumanity that went into producing it? Same goes for other examples of animal mistreatment...

I'll admit to feeling conflicted at times, but I have to say, I've been to a California farm where geese were force-fed grain to make foie gras and (maybe because I'm from a farm town in Minnesota) I wasn't turned off by the process.  The birds didn't seem frightened, they had lots of room to roam and I didn't see any evidence of anyone or anything being abused.


You know which food sources I feel sorriest for? Sharks that have JUST their fins removed for shark fin soup and other purposes. The sharks end up drowning.


I no longer eat shark's fin soup, but I continue to order foie gras in restaurants.  Color me a hypocrite.

Tom: Wondering if you make it a habit to read chefs' autobiographies? I am reading Grant Achatz's new book, Life on the Line, and getting some insight into the personalities of some superstars like Tom Keller and Charlie Trotter.

I try to keep up with food-related tomes, but there are a lot out there right now, and my days are pretty long. Not a great deal of time for leisurely reading, I'm sad to say.


I've got "Blood, Bones and Butter" by Gabrielle Hamilton on my night stand right now, but it's in competition with "Colonel Roosevelt" by Edmund Morris (I'm a TDR fan.)

Berlin's a very international city! I wouldn't expect someone visiting Washington from abroad to stay away from Jaleo and Oyamel because they're not serving American food, would you? The Vietnamese restaurant at Rykestraße 36 is really good, too.

Fair point. And thanks for the additional tip.

T: I have found a few new spots in DC I have enjoyed-Floriana (across from Komi) for one, that seem to have stepped up thier game recently. Do you re-visit restaurants when you hear of a change in ownership, or the hiring of a new chef?

Most definitely! Thanks for the heads up on Floriana.

Restaurant Eve - hands down best deal and best food.

You mean the bar or the bistro for lunch?



Or the bar special at Eve the Lickety Split for $13.95, I try to do that as often as I can!

(Slapping my head for omitting the deal.)

Recommend he buy a Cooking Class for both he and his wife. It's more fun to do as a couple, or maybe she can bring a friend, or a child. There are plenty of cooking classes appropriate for young children. In addition to Sur La Table, I recently took a participation class at L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, MD and LOVED it!

Another fine idea. Thanks for writing.

Even after living there for 4 years I have yet to try all the restaurants in Bethesda. I think Cesco and Black's are my favorites - just wondering if there is anywhere else I really need to try before the baby comes and my dinners are cooked at home for a few months!

Have you supped at Raku? Bistro Provence? Praline? RedwoodTavira in Chevy Chase? They rank among my favorites at the moment.

Tom, My wife loves great bread, so we're hoping to find a dinner place in DC that features top-notch breads with our meal. Suggestions? Thanks!

There's not as much great bread out there as you might think, but I've found delicious exceptions at Bourbon Steak (dig those truffle butter rolls), CityZen (whose box of tiny yeast rolls is almost a course of its own), Vidalia (Vidalia onions on the foccaccia!)  and, and ... help me grow the list, chatters!

Yes, by all means, it would have to be Eve or Vermilion or The Majestic. After all, there are no other restaurants in Old Town. Or so one would believe if they only read Tom Sietsema.....

Well, where would YOU steer folks if they wanted a good lunch in Old Town? I've found some of the competition to be less enticing. Prove me wrong, please.

If the poster is willing to traverse outside the city, 2941 has lovely breads!

Yes, indeed. And you still get a loaf for the ride home on the way out. Nice touch.

Hank's Oyster bar is great for lunch but they are only open for lunch on Fri, Sat, Sun. And Bastille is a nice little find too.

Nice options. Thanks.

Don't forget the incredible bread service at Birch and Barley!

Yes! Of course!

I'm planning a Tuesday night dinner for myself and 5 colleagues. We're a late twenties to thirties food and drink loving group that consider ourselves friends in addition to colleagues. Most of the group will be from out of town (Chicago). Open to all kinds of cuisine and price points. Looking for a place with great food where we can have a few (ok, more than a few) cocktails and let loose after a long workday. Bonus if it's a short cab from the Hotel George where everyone is staying. I was thinking maybe Jaleo, Proof, Zaytinya or Smith Commons, although I've yet to visit the latter. Any thoughts? Thanks Tom!

All good choices, but I much prefer the liquids to the solids at Smith Commons in NE.  You should also consider Bar Pilar in Logan Circle, Kushi on lower K St. NW  and the aforementioned Fiola in Penn Quarter.

I'm addicted to the popovers at BLT! That counts as bread, right?!

Those warm and billowy popovers are the reason I go there ....

Don't forget the Great American chain, with bread from Best Buns. Used to be, Bilbo Baggins had wonderful bread, but since they began to charge extra for it I wouldn't know . . .

The list is getting longer, and more luscious ...

Hey Tom, My SO and I are heading out to NOLA this weekend for a few days and was hoping you could provide some food recommendations. We're in our mid-20s and consider ourselves to be somewhat worldly. Do you have any suggestions for a really nice fine dining experience (I've been to Dickie Brennans)? What about any places off the beaten path, new/intriguing, or even divey thats worth a visit? Truthfully, we enjoy the lowbrow probably more than the fancy stuff. Thanks, Tom! I'm hoping to make this a super special trip.

My favorite food "dive" is in Treme. Willie Mae's Scotch House, which won a James Beard America's Classic Award in 2005, is justifiably famous for its wet-battered fried chicken. 


For some style with your Sazerac, try the bar called Cure. Lots of fun, some of the best cocktails I had during my stay.


If I could only repeat one meal in New Orleans, it would be the pork-fest I had at Cochon in the Warehouse District. But I also really enjoyed the lusty local cooking at Patois (get the paneed rabbit and any fish).


Running out of time, alas. But I hope those tips help you out.


See you here next week folks. 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 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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