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

Sep 03, 2014

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Tom - What's your take on the recent horrible reviews of places owned by high powered chefs (You on Voltaggio's new place, Washingtonian on Andres' new place, everyone on RIchard's new place). Are they spread too thin? Are they doing too much stuff out of the kitchen? What's the root cause?

My short take? Mr. Voltaggio is over-extended and Mr. Richard has some really bad business advisers.  The Washingtonian and I disagree over America Eats Tavern. If anyone can make a restaurant work in Tysons, it's Jose Andres.


FOOD MATTERS: Urbana emerges today from a $600,000 “refresh” that finds a bigger lounge, Italian-accented cocktails (Negronis on tap!), more gluten-free pizzas and pastas and a private dining room relocated to the lobby area  Ralf Schlegel was recently promoted to the position of executive chef at Plume at the Jefferson hotel, which recently acquired the wine services of ace sommelier Jennifer Knowles, formerly of Fiola Mare and the Inn at Little Washington.  The chef, a German native, comes from a family of hoteliers and first worked in Washington as the executive sous chef at Marcel’s in the West End … The incoming chef at Zentan is Yo Matsuzaki, who previously cooked at the modern Japanese restaurant Ozumo in Oakland.



Good morning, everyone. Lots to chew over this morning. Let’s begin.


Having dined at Patowmac Farm restaurant. We generally agreed with your review of the food, ambiance in the tented area, and service. However, you failed to mention an outdoor patio adjacent to the tent where we were actually served our dinner on pleasant evening. It was very quiet and provided a great view of the surrounding, hills, forest and the Potomac River bridge. Bill and Barbara

Are you talking about the tented patio outside the glass-enclosed conservatory? We ran a photo of it alongside the review.

Do you ever eat at the "fast casual" places? Or do you always eat at proper sit-down restaurants? If you do, what are your favorite "quick" places in the city? There are so many of them now!

If I only ate in places that had linens on their tables, I wouldn't be very busy these days, nor would I be doing my job. 


While I eat in the full range of restaurants on a regular basis, in recent months, the bulk of my dining out for work has found me in loftier environments (partly for the forthcoming dining guide and partly because of the nature of new restaurants).


For something quick and easy, however, I gravitate to one of several Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen locations in the city. Nando's Peri-Peri, also with multiple stylish branches, does a great job with its zesty marinated chicken, coleslaw and yellow rice with bell peppers. The burgers at Shake Shack are reliable, as are the Indian flavors at the fast-casual Merzi in Penn Quarter. And who doesn't appreciate Amsterdam Falafel for its fluffy-centered fritters that can be accessorized with a salad bar's worth of toppings, especially in the wee hours of the morning?

Hi Tom - I was hoping you could recommend some downtown DC restaurants that have private dining rooms and don't charge a fee or require a minimum order for dinner. My 8-person group meets monthly, needs a private room to discuss business, and would like the bill to come to about $50 per person at the end of evening. Any ideas?

I'd start with the cozy front room at Ripple in Cleveland Park, which offers a $35, three-course early bird menu and the giant chef's table at Soi 38, the lovely new Thai addition downtown. Finer still: 701 in Penn Quarter, where the very good pastas average $20.

Put a limit on the number of times you use a euphemism. For instance, "hired mouth" isn't funny the second time, much less the 500th.

Duly noted! "Hired mouth" has been retired for the remainder of the year.

Tom, I had the great good fortune last week to dine at Rose's Luxury (Thursday dinner) and Iron Gate (Friday lunch). The food was great at both places. But the EXPERIENCE was so strikingly different that it demonstrated why Rose's Luxury earned Bon Appetit's "Best New Restaurant" distinction. At Rose's, our servers were friendly, knowledgable, and asked about us -- what we liked, whether we'd been there before. And, per usual (according to the BA article), our server "bought us" one of the dishes on the menu that we hadn't ordered. The result was exactly as Andrew Knowlton quoted Aaron Silverman: “It’s not about white gloves and a four-fork table setting. It’s about being taken care of, and making people happy.” Now, to Iron Gate. Great food, beautiful setting. But my inquiry about whether I could get the gyro with the lamb from the lamb sandwich instead of the pulled chicken at first engendered confusion, then a consultation with the kitchen. When our waiter returned, he informed me that the kitchen COULD do that, but would have to charge me the price of the lamb sandwich (which was fine). My lunch companion was less successful; his inquiry about whether any of the pastas were available as appetizer half-orders was met with an absolute "no." It was still a fine meal, but the counterpoint to the Rose's experience was brought out in sharp relief -- at Iron Gate, I got fed. At Rose's, I got taken care of. And the price point was about the same for both experiences.

There's a great lesson in your excellent post. I hope the powers that be at Iron Gate see it -- and act on it going forward.

Tom - Indian Accent was so much more than I ever expected! First off, when we arrived we were told that the restaurant was closed for a private event (Delhi foodie group event), yet they said because we made such an effort to dine there (reservations two weeks in advance) they were going to make it work for us. And by that they meant they put a private table on their patio just for us! I mentioned your review and they spoke fondly of you. The general manager told us they put together a special event menu for that night which had the same dishes as the chef's menu but also some new dishes prepared especially for it. When I asked about the price they assured me we could get the special menu for the same price as the chef's, amazing! What came after was one of the best dining experiences I've had. A few highlights included a potato chaat, which the chef explained to us is based off an Indian street food dish. It was delicious with the various chutneys on it and later that week we had the chaat off the street and could definitely recognize the same flavors. The chilean spare ribs, black lentils, and crispy poached egg curry were a few of the best dishes I've had this year. Even after people started arriving for the event, the chef would accompany the dishes out and explain them to us. We were served 15 different dishes not including the various naan stuffed with things - blue cheese, pumpkin, bacon, and truffles - all were delicious! Also I discovered a new food - unripe jack fruit that in texture and flavor could have been pulled pork in the vegetarian taco they served to us. "Oh, you liked that dish? I'll bring you out another one!" The service was spot on, at times it felt like we had four servers dedicated only to our party (of 3). A truly memorable 3 hour culinary adventure, we felt like kings after! Everyone who goes to Delhi must experience this place. I'll send you an email of a picture with the chef. Thanks again!

Your post makes my week. Thanks for the feedback. It's good to hear Indian Accent remains the gem I wrote about for a Postcard from Tom two years ago. And lucky you, to be seated on the patio! I remember wishing I could have landed there instead of the dining room.

I have an allergy to a certain popular spice which tends to make me break out and get a minor rash but is in no way life threatening. Usually it will be in a dessert. I can't tell you the number of times I've been lied to or the server has not checked if I ask, because after about 5 minutes I will start to get a rash around my lips. Needless to say, I end up getting huge apologies from both the server and management when they can clearly see said ingredient is causing me grief. I would have ordered something else if they had been honest with me.

Note to restaurants: If a diner takes the initiative to inform you of an allergy, best to take stated allergy seriously. 


Poster, can you share the source of your rash? Just curious.



I wish there were some way to get across to restaurants that scented soaps in the restroom really interfere with my enjoyment of my food. Raising a wineglass to my lips and smelling cloying perfume from my hands is an unpleasant experience. Plus in this day and age of sensitivity to VOCs (volatile organic compounds) you'd think restaurants would be eager to oblige in that dept.

FYI, restaurants.

So it's been noted that you were recently at Parallel 38 here in town. What other favorites do you have in Charlottesville and the surrounding areas? (And yes, I can and have traveled to Staunton to go to Zynadoa and The Shack.)

Gosh, I wish I had a week to explore C'Ville at my leisure. Lots of good cooking down there. Some of my favorite destinations at the moment include Pasture, a branch of the Richmond restaurant of the same name, and the Ivy Inn, helmed by chef Angelo Vangelopoulos. 

It was painful to read. So, we have to know: do you agree with the review? Can America Eats recover? Is your own review coming soon?

I've already weighed in on the latest from Jose Andres.

Please quit wasting your and our time with posts from oversensitive people who object to your use of a term, unless it's on the grounds of inaccuracy. We value your time!

Well, I figure if I dish out criticism, I should be able to take it, too, even if it's on my home turf. 

Hi Tom, Know of any "do not miss" restaurants in Barcelona?

I'm seriously overdue for a trip to Spain. Here's a dispatch from Barcelona -- from a decade ago. Perhaps some chatters can add to the list?

I'm pre-disposed to like Lunch Box -- I like sandwiches, and I like the nearby Range. But unfortunately, your review mirrors my experience. The Baltimore pit beef was fairly bland. The potato salad tasted only of mayonnaise despite the long list of other ingredients listed on the menu. I would emphasize as well that Lunch Box is at a premium price point for sandwiches. I'm willing to spend $12 if it's really good -- e.g. at G on 14th St -- but there is a ton of competition in the neighborhood, including food trucks, at the $7-10 price point for lunch. People willing to spend $15-20 for lunch would be better off at Range.

Thanks for the feedback. Lunchbox, which owner Bryan Voltaggio said was an improved version of his original eatery (now closed) in Frederick, is a head-scratcher. How hard is it to make even decent sandwiches? Harder than one might imagines, it turns out.  I like the look of the place; kudos to the design team.

Dear Tom, I was disappointed to see your review. I had only been to lunchbox once but their meatloaf sandwich with pineapple relish on a biscuit was one of the best sandwiches I've ever had! I hope they can get their act together!

Me, too. That area is in need of something that's more personal than Starbucks, Cheesecake Factory, Mi Cocina and the like.

Husband likes banana cream pies (I think they're okay), and I thought I'd take him out for a *great* banana cream pie. I'm having trouble finding places that even serve it! Any recommendations? Montgomery county prefered, but DC certainly do-able. Thanks!

The newish Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab on 15th St. NW has a roster of pies on its dessert list, including banana cream pie with foster sauce for $7.95.  Nice touch: the selections are all offered by the half-slice if you ask.

Need nice restaurant for client lunch near K and Connecticut.

I'd go to the recently-remodeled Oval Room downtown, which is within walking distance of the White House, or its sister restaurant across the street, Bombay Club.

Dear Tom, If you were celebrating 11 years marriage annivesary to someone really special and you are both gluten free (medical), hard-core foodies who are open minded about trying out new food/restaurants, which two restaurants in DC would top your list this summer for a great dinner and drinks under $300? Thanks you: Dan

You know what's fun and romantic, as long as the weather cooperates? The courtyard at Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, which has a long menu of Greek and Italian small plates as well as family-style platters of fish and meat. And if wine director Brent Kroll is on hand to help you select liquids, so much the better. I recently took a friend with food concerns similar to yours and she raved over how well she was able to eat.

Do you find that the Fast Casual establishments you mentioned (ShopHouse, Nando's, Shake Shack, etc) are too expensive for the type of experience?

What's too expensive? I'm cool paying more for fast food that's sourced well, prepared well and served in neat or even modestly stylish settings. A guy can shell out a lot at the better-known chains for stuff that's not great for him.

During restaurant week we ate at a place that had the standard $35 menu and one for $55 with an additional course. After our server explained the options we indicated that we wanted the $35 menu and ordered accordingly. Upon receipt of the bill, my dining companion noticed we were all charged for the $55 menu (we were drinking quite a bit of wine and actually missed the mistake initially). When we brought this to the attention of our server, he gave a short response (something like “oh, okay”, certainly not an apology and we all agreed it was an odd reaction) and of course fixed the bill. I understand mistakes happen, but for 6 people including tax and the automatic gratuity, this was a $150 overcharge and his reaction made me question whether or not this was truly an honest mistake (and most likely due to the wine we almost didn't catch the mistake). We didn't say anything to the manager, because our problem was fixed, but I’m wondering whether I should have. The only reason to say anything is if something was done intentionally but with little evidence, I’d hate to make such an accusation. Were we right to stay quiet? Thanks, Tom!

I think the wine got in the way of your better judgement. The best time to air a complaint is at the time there's a problem or a question. I wasn't there to witness the scene you describe, but the server's casual response to your inquiry makes me suspicious. How many other people were "accidentally" over-charged, I wonder?

Odd how all the people that are unbiased are not loving the new place by Andres, yet there you are carrying his water. I knew you got preferential treatment but I didn't know this was the cost

"Carrying his water?" Hey, I also carry his cava and sangria!  Guess I should have mentioned the $10,000 retainer I get every month from J.A., as I call him. Because, you know, we hang out every other night at Minibar after I finish my reviewing rounds. He usually spoon feeds me paella when I'm there.

Which restaurant(s) stand out to you for the best-tasting free bread? I was disappointed to see Bertucci's in Herndon close -- not because the pizza was so good, but because since I was in high school years ago, they've topped my personal list of "best free bread at restaurants."

Vidalia gets my vote for it's baked-to-order rolls, focaccia, cornbread and biscuits.

Hi Tom, I've been out west since 2008, with only brief trips back to DC since. I'm back for a week now, and will have a birthday dinner on Friday. Is there a place I shouldn't miss on the trip? I've heard rumblings about Red Hen and Rose's Luxury. Old favorites were Corduroy, Firefly, Rasika, and Granville Moore's. Thus far I've had Ris, Range, and Chez Billy and liked all three. In the District, and topping out at mid-20s for entrees would be best. Thanks!

"Rumblings" about Rose's, eh? More like a coast-to-coast ROAR, if you ask me!


Of the newer restaurants on the scene, I'd certainly include Tico, Thally, Soi 38 and Boss Shepherd's, next to the Warner.

Tom--where do you rank Chez Billy in terms of best French restaurants in DC? It's not as fancy as Marcels but I really like Billy's outdoor space (unless someone is smoking) and their mussels are as good as anyone. The cold sweet corn soup is one of the best dishes I've tried this summer.

I liked the original (another one is scheduled for Georgetown this fall) enough to feature it in my fall dining guide two years ago, but visits since haven't been as delicious.

Your response to the diner at Connecticut & K makes me wonder if you no longer care for Kellari Taverna? I can't argue with Oval Room or Bombay but Kellari has come through in a pinch for a couple recent meals and I've never had a bad meal there.

It's fine. But it's not in the same league as the other establishments.

I recently ate in the tasting menu dining room w/my partner celebrating our anniversary. Our experience was affected though by the table of 3 next to us, that complained so loudly over the tasting menu portion of the entree being so small that they successfully obtained a to-go portion of the entree at no charge. I wanted to say that I understand why IG felt they had to accommodate the diner, but such bad behavior has a ripple effect beyond the table in question. I was annoyed by the scene they made especially since they were clearly in the wrong. It's sad that this is what dining out in the modern age has come to, especially in this unique setting.

Good grief! That kind of behavior disgusts me. The diners actually had the gall to take home what they felt was a bigger portion? 

Hi Tom, Thanks for keeping these chats informative yet "light" - I just wanted to say I like your sense of humor!

Ah, thank you. But I hope I'm addressing questions of a more serious nature as well.

Hi Tom, I do agree with your assessment overall, my recent trip there made me wonder why people were lined up at Starbucks but not at this beautiful eatery. I think the key is ordering the right menu item (which I realized was about 20% of the menu in my experience). My pastrami sandwich was very tasty and good looking, however my companion's catfish with cheese left us wondering if the food came from the same place. There's a reason why Italians don't mix cheese with seafood, and that sandwich was a disappointment both in looks and taste. If I may, I'd suggest that Brian looks at the combinations in sandwiches and rearranges them as I believe the ingredients are good but the place seems to be still "experimenting" with the ratios of ingredients, and I doubt that what we see in the store is what Brian started with originally. I think he needs more "classic" such as turkey, club, roast beef, etc. and then more adventurous combinations highlighted maybe separately. Also, they need to find a way to speed up the production, I am still wondering why my pastrami sandwich took a while when I was the only person in the box at an early lunch hour and all the ingredients were there. If he's going to compete in this area, he does need to bring the "speed" up to where the other "fast casual" places are or at least closer, even though I am the one willing to wait for good food, sandwiches shouldn't take that long :-( Also, I am confused about why he is open til late in the evening instead of morning and lunch maybe? With the Starbucks outside he has a great audience, and if he were to make some quick breakfast sandwiches with that kind of food, I'd be willing to stop on my way over, but who wants a sandwich at 6 o'clock in a mall? I think he does need to put his head in the "LunchBox" setting or partner with someone who gets this audience/experience to be successful. P.S. Sorry, Brian, I love your food and have eaten at Range and Aggio, that's why I want you to be successful!

What a great post: civil, helpful, detailed. Let's hope the chef and his crew see it.

Tom, Here I am back at the well again, for your always helpful advice. My husband and I are thinking of CityZen for our anniversary dinner in November, but are concerned about the, impending, departure of Eric Ziebold. Has there been any more news about when, exactly, he will leave CityZen? In the alternative, do you have any other suggestions for a similarly spectacular meal (not Komi) in DC, Philly or Baltimore? Thanks!

Honestly, my inclination would be to pass on CityZen. The chef is expected to leave by the end of the year; Andy Myers, the restaurant's terrific sommelier, recently left for ThinkFoodGroup. 


For a special meal in Baltimore, splurge on either Charleston of the second branch of Aggio, from the aforementioned Bryan Voltaggio. In Philadelphia, I love to eat at the modern Israeli restaurant Zahav.

Any options on H St where you don't have to yell to hear the people you're eating with?

You don't have to be able to read lips to enjoy the new Peruvian restaurant, Ocopa, at least if you sit up front near the window.

You've got about as much sense of humor as a kid discovering his dead gerbil on Christmas morning! Sheeeeeeeeeeeeesh!

No one is forcing you to be here, sir.

If you want a special meal that comes with bread, then CityZen has awesome bread. The entire meal was great, but I love bread...and they offered you more with each course! I think they amused me with another serving even with the course that included Parker rolls.

But those delicious rolls come mid-way through dinner, almost as their own course. The anticipation is agony.

My boss has decided to take the team out for a big dinner... and chose The Palm. What would you recommend ordering at this old school-turned touristy steakhouse?

Is your boss Don Draper?


A couple years ago, I reevaluated the steakhouse scene and came to the conclusion that the best thing about The Palm is its service.


How can you forget Taco Bamba?

My mind was stuck in DC. Happy to add Taco Bamba to the "fast casual" list.

How quickly people forget your review of Minibar, Tom.

Right? RIGHT?

How about Fiola Mare? I think it's a beautiful setting and definitely a place to celebrate.

Not DC or MontCo, but Arties in Fairfax has an out of this world banana cream pie.

Added to the list! Thanks for the memory jog.

Hi Tom. Recently went to a restaurant that opened up near my home. It's supposedly a "flaghship" restaurant. The food was okay, nothing stellar, and certainly not worth the price I paid for it. But it wasn't just that. It was the whole package that made my dining companion and me think that we won't go back. It was very loud. It had a TV (pet peeve of mine, I hate TVs in restaurants, I can watch TV at home, thank-you-very-much.) Our server was fine, except that he had this huge tattoo that distracted my dining companion and me all night. You could tell that the server was working really hard to make sure we had everything we needed and yet service was slow. So here's my question: Do things other than the food influence your review of a restaurant? Like I said, the food was okay, but given that it was just okay, and given everything else, I won't go back to this restaurant.

I'm with you on TVs in restaurants, but owners tell me they're a necessary evil in media-obsessed Washington. As for the tattoo ... what did it depict? If I were bothered by ink, I 'd have to put in for a job transfer! (Plus, I'd have to change partners. Not going to happen.)


Stuff that bugs me in restaurants: Hosts that don't seat me until my entire party is present (trust me, they're coming!) ... overly-detailed menu explanations ... helicopter waiters ... 


Anyone care to lengthen the list with me?

When is a reservation not a reservation? apparently not at your recently reviewed Restaurant at Patowmack Farm. Planning ahead to get together a group of people from diverse areas we made a reservation for Saturday brunch on Oct 11th through Open Table. I received a call from the restaurant saying that my reservation was cancelled because they were now hosting a wedding. Ended up negotiating a similar time for 2 weeks down the road but unfortunately some of my party can't make that date. So what is your take on a restaurant that ditches you for a bigger better deal?

I wouldn't be happy about it, especially since Patowmack is a destination restaurant that requires some advance planning.  But at least you got advance notice.

Another poster touched on the wait at Lunchbox, but I'm curious about your take, Tom. I work in the building and the slow service/long waits has become sort of a punchline in my office. 20 minute waits for a sandwich are not unheard of. My experience with the food mirrors yours. I've given it several chances and I now head elsewhere. Too bad.

Oh, dear.

that one man's crouton is another man's stale bread. Thanks for all that you do!

I'm laughing, I'm laughing.

I have an allergy to cranberries... it's more of a strong irritant, where my lips itch and my throat swells (feels like strep). If I go to the trouble of asking, someone better make the effort! I once got a salad covered in cranberries after specifically asking about that ingredient (it wasn't listed on the menu, but I suspected based on the other ingredients). Bah hum bug!

Cranberries! Interesting. Thanks for following up.

I've been away. Didn't realize there was a new Boss Shepherd's. Looks like it is a very different place from the one where my coworkers used to drink lunch back in the '80s.

Same name, totally different operation.

Hi Tom, Love love love the chat! My daughter wants to take 7 of her friends out to dinner for her 16th. Any fun suggestions that is metro accessible in DC? She's taking but I'm paying so anything on the reasonable side would be appreciated. Thanks

Think small plates. In Penn Quarter, you have Spanish tapas at Jaleo and Middle Eastern mezze at Zaytinya.

You called it fledgling a few chats back. Is it struggling? Going there this weekend. Anything that's a can't miss?

Fledgling, as in youthful, not floundering.  My take.


I'm outta here, at least until next Wednesday. Thanks, all, for spending 60 minutes with me again today.

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 contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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