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

Sep 17, 2014

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.

Went to DBGB hoping to get a glance of DB and asked our server if he was there. The server said that he is only there for events and if VIPs are planning to go. From all the press I thought he would be sticking around for longer than a few days, but it seems that it's a lot of smoke and mirrors. The food was great but why does the group promote the place with him if he is never going to be there? What are your thoughts, Tom?

Terrific question.

 

Daniel Boulud is a clever and organized gentleman. Few chefs coming from out of town have reached out to Washingtonians -- chefs and patrons alike -- the way Boulud has in advance of opening DBGB.  He enjoyed effusive press even before his launch party over the weekend. But Boulud should know we're not the market he left decades ago and we expect him to spend quality time in Washington if he wants to be taken seriously. I hope he doesn't just parachute into town if he knows, say, FLOTUS is going to be dining at DBGB. Obviously, Boulud has an empire to run in NYC, but he ought to spend regular amounts of time in DC.

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone. I was sorry to cancel last week's discussion, but I'm happy to be back online today, taking your comments and questions. Bring 'em on!

I took my family to Osteria Morini on Saturday night after reading your review, and we had a wonderful meal! For dessert, our server mentioned that the soft baked meringue was the newest addition to the menu, so we decided to give a try and loved it so much that we asked if we could meet the pastry chef. He came out and explained how the dish was prepared and then invited me to come in anytime that was convenient so that we could make it together. I feel uncomfortable following up about it because I don't have any kitchen experience. Do you think it would be ok to actually go? I think it would be a lot of fun to see but am a little nervous about taking him up on the offer.

He offered -- and you should follow up. A professional pastry chef doesn't expect you to have his skill set or experience. After the lesson, you'll have at least one cool dish in your repertoire to show off to friends:  "This is how Alex Levin taught me to do it at Osteria Morini."

Hi Tom, I will be going to Nashville this weekend for a wedding, staying in the downtown area without a car. I get in late Friday (around 9pm) and am looking for a good place to get dinner solo Friday night, then brunch/lunch on Saturday and Sunday with my boyfriend. Any suggestions??

Here's my latest dispatch from Nashville. It's not in that round-up, but City House is also worth checking out.

Hi Tom. Had lunch today at a mid-priced restaurant in Penn Quarter. Ordered an iced tea with my meal. When the tea was finished (It was a fairly small glass filled with ice, and I had ordered a spicy dish), I asked if I could get more and was brought another tea. When the bill came, I was charged for two teas. When I inquired, I was told that they do not give free refills. Shouldn't I have been told that when I asked for more tea? Since most restaurants in my experience provide free refills of soft drinks & iced tea, shouldn't a restaurant with a different policy make sure that their customers are aware of it before the bill comes?

Yep, a restaurant should inform diners about charging for refills. On a similar subject, I hate it when I order a bottle of sparkling water and a waiter assumes I want another and opens one up without permission.

Tom, Do you have suggestions for a great culinary experience for say...a woman turning 38? I would like to invite a few friends~10-12 to enjoy with me. Thank you@

Budget? Private dining room or no? Cuisine preferences? Location?

Best friend coming from Ohio next week, staying at JW Marriott. I'm looking for great, interesting/different food within walking distance or short cab ride of hotel, if possible, for Tuesday night. Price not an issue. Thanks!

I'm a big fan of the young Boss Shepherd's, which you can walk to from the Marriott. It's what Clyde's should aspire to: solid American food in a dashing saloon-type environment. The fried chicken and biscuits are particularly impressive, by the way.

For a 45th anniversary dinner, just the 2 of us, in DC, with good food and wine, excellent service, and quiet enough for conversation. And must take reservations, we are too old to stand on line. What would you recommend? Thanks.

First off, congrats. (And what's your secret to staying together? )

 

If I were you, I'd consider Corduroy on Ninth St., where I'd ask for one of the intime booths; Vidalia downtown, for its excellent Southern menu; or the sumptuous Plume in the Jefferson hotel. I haven't been to the last since it acquired a new chef and a top sommelier, but the recent additions to the restaurant make me eager to return.

I wish servers and other restaurant workers would stop using the phrase "no problem" when a customer asks for something. A simple "thank you", "yes, I'd be happy to do so", "right away, ma'am" or similar response is a better way of communicating with customers. We know it's "no problem" for you to help us -- that's what you're there to do. Restaurant owners should communicate this to staff so everyone is on the same page on how to respond to requests from guests. What do you and your chat participants think??

"No problem" in response to a query is a problem for some of us.  Count me in your camp. "No problem" sounds lazy to me.

I'm heading to Thally for dinner this weekend. Is there anything on the menu that I shouldn't miss? Thanks.

The menu changes a lot. But if Thally is offering carnitas sope or duck breast with cabbage, bite. Chef Ron Tanaka also does great things with pasta.

I don't understand why restaurants insist on offering either fancy water or "tap water" when it's so simple to install a water filter that will make DC's chlorine-laden tap water palatable.

Restaurants wouldn't "insist" on offering designer H2O if there wasn't a demand. And as someone who prefers water with bubbles,  there's a big difference among house-filtered stuff, San Pelligrino, Perrier, etc.

Hi Tom (and chatters): My husband and I will have a few hours in Richmond on a Friday evening. We have very little experience with our own state capitol - any suggestions on a dinner location (any cuisine, we like it all) and is Carytown the area to hit up when you only have a few hours to get the flavor of the city? Thank you!

Richmond! Lucky you. If I had time for only one meal, I'd return to Dutch & Company, which I detailed in a Postcard from Tom.

Hi Tom, I'm looking for a fabulous outdoor spot for dinner tonight, but I don't want to totally break the bank. I've heard that the outdoor patio at Iron Gate is really pretty, but what is their menu like out there? I checked online, and they have a Garden and Carriageway Menu, which I assume is for the outdoor area. Unfortunately, they do not list any prices! If you don't recommend Iron Gate, do you have any other suggestions for a great outdoor spot in NW DC?

Hey, Neighborhood Restaurant Group! You have another diner wanting to do business with you! 

 

The outdoor patio at Iron Gate, a stage for Greek and Italian small plates, sounds perfect for a day like today.  When I supped there recently, the dishes cost between $5 and $12.

Hi Tom, My husband and I are big foodies in DC and looking to celebrate a small anniversary this weekend. We are both vegetarian and are looking for a new veg-friendly restaurant to try this weekend. Some of our favorite restaurants in the area include: Rose's Luxury, Jaleo, Zaytinya, Rasika, and Volt. Thanks in advance!

New, and intriguing: DC Harvest, at 517 H St. N.E.  I'm writing about the place for my First Bite column next week, but its menu is heavy on vegetables and grains. Selections include quinoa cakes with a yellow tomato sauce and ricotta-kale agnolotti with eggplant.

Tom--I am looking at the web site for Iron Gate Inn as I type this. My wife and I are interested in going there for one of our hard-to-schedule date nights (given our new baby). The web site contains all the restaurant's menus, but there are NO PRICES listed on any of the menus. I find this to be very obnoxious and pretentious move. How are we supposed to make an informed decision about whether to go there--are we just supposed to show up and hope that the dinner is within our price range? Frankly, we are not lacking for disposable income, but this makes me very disinclined to go there at all. I get that prices can change based on the cost of inputs. But guess what--it's a web site. You can make those changes very easily. Sorry for the rant, but in a city full of great restaurants, why do something like this that makes it hard for people to decide whether to go there, and in addition is such a turn-off? I would appreciate your thoughts.

Grrr. I'm in your camp on this one.  There's no reason not to post prices online.

 

Iron Gate's parent company is a responsive one. I have a hunch the Neighborhood Restaurant Group will make the necessary online tweaks after they see this.

I understand what you're saying, but its a colloquial term for an affirmative response. For the record... the other options you listed can all be annoying in their own way: "thank you" - As a customer, why would you thank me for ordering another iced tea? "yes, I'd be happy to do so" - I don't care if you're happy or not, the same way I don't care if its a "problem". "right away, ma'am" - Don't call me ma'am! A helpful attitude is all that counts- does your server really mean that your request will only be fulfilled because its convenient?

Simpler yet: "Right away." Or a smile and a nod.

Ahhh, it would important to give the details for a culinary experience. I would like private to semi-private moderate to upscale experience. I am looking in Washington, DC but certainly open to Maryland or VA. My guests would love seafood, new american, or any good comfort food. I am sure you have thoughts? I am considering Vidalia but no private rooms are available on a Saturday.

The recently redone Oval Room has a semi-private dining room for a party your size, and some very good, contemporary American food from chef Tony Conte.  I particularly like his use of Asian accents on his latest script.

Just wanted to share a pleasant experience my family and I had recently at America Eats Tavern. While we didn't notice a longer-than-usual wait in between the appetizer and entree, the waiter and manager both came to apologize for a slow kitchen. They gave each of us (6) dessert on the house and they even refilled my non-refillable non-alcoholic fruit soda for free. Nice gestures -- not to mention great food --like that have us looking forward to going back soon.

Problems are going to happen in restaurants. It's the way a business handles its slips that can make or break the experience -- and retain or lose customers.

What do you do, if a waiter opens a 2nd bottle of sparkling water without asking you first?

It depends on whether or not you want the second bottle. If you don't, simply say, "No thanks."

I can't believe you object to a term of respect but don't find "no problem" slangy and inappropriate.

Are you talking to me or the original poster? Because I'm OK with terms of respect!

How about "Certainly!"

I like it, I like it. But I'll bet you $5, someone on the chat is going to take issue with it. 

Heading to Todd English's Mexican place tonight (kudos to him for not getting pigeonholed by his name!) Have you been back or heard anything since your review last summer?

I had no desire to return after my initial experience and no one has reported back to me with any (good or bad) news since then. The silence says something.  I'm curious why you're going when there are so many places worthier of your time and money?

For the person looking for a space for 10-12 for a culinary experience: Fiola Mare has a great semi private area. I recently went to an event there and it was lovely.

Let's add the waterfront extravaganza to the list.

"No problem" is rude? Seriously?? This person needs to get over themselves. It would never occur to me, or to anyone I know, to consider that anything but absolutely friendly and attentive, and I'd certainly much rather have a server say "no problem" than "Right away, Sir" -- I'm not the King of England and I'm not their boss. It's things like this that make me count my lucky stars I'm not a waiter -- there really is no pleasing everyone.

I agree with you on that: there's no pleasing everyone. I would hate to own a restaurant.

Can we please move on from innocuous phrases that in the end are meant with zero malice? I can't help but read them and think how fantastically lucky people are to have such lives that *this* is what infuriates them.

Good point. Let this be the last word on the matter, at least for the next 30 or so minutes

Can you recommend a Georgian restaurant in the area? I've been searching and failing and hope someone else may know of one. (Preferably one that's actually Georgian and not Russian masquerading as Georgian which sometimes happens) Thank you!

I haven't encountered any Georgian food in the area, but I'd welcome the cuisine with open arms (and mouth).

Millennium, a vegetarian restaurant in the Hotel California in San Francisco, has its own carbonizing machine and they serve you all you want to drink for a price of about two dollars. It would be nice if they did this sort of thing in DC.

Oh, but they do! Scores of DC restaurants now offer house-carbonated water, sometimes gratis.

Hey Tom! Missed you last week! I just got done reading "The Butter Did It" by your predecessor, Phyllis Richman. Any plans to foray into the mystery (or other fiction) genre?

I missed you as well!  If I do write a book, it would be probably not be a mystery or a memoir.

Hi Tom, husban and I are new vegetarians. His birthday is on Saturday, and I'm at a total loss of where to take him to celebrate. Any suggestions in DC?

Both Rasika in Penn Quarter and Rasika West End can handle your wishes. And their dining rooms make festive places to celebrate a special occasion.

Does one tip the sommelier? If so, can you provide some guidelines. Thanks.

I usually leave a 20 percent tip on the total bill and let the house divide it as management sees fit. On occasion, for especially attentive wine service, I'll tip a sommelier $20 or so.  It really depends on the situation (and how much I've imbibed).

I was invited to lunch at The Palm couple weeks ago, and ordered a side dish of "vegetables of the day" thinking in the middle of the summer we could get something green, fresh and interesting. I was appalled to see a plate of carrots, peas and corn chopped up finely (just like the frozen pack!) and cooked to death. Really? Seriously? If I weren't a guest I would have sent it back but couldn't in this case. Needless to say, I barely touched it and noone commented on it either.

Perhaps you missed the fine print at the Palm. Maybe it read "flash-frozen vegetables of the day?" Or maybe the "day" it was referencing was Sept. 4 -- 1978.

our secret to staying together -- we like each other and enjoy one another's company, but we each have independent interests and activities, too.

Bully for you! Thanks for responding. The saddest thing I see sometimes is a couple that obviously looks as if they've been together a long time, dining in silence -- and not a "good" silence.

 

Actually, the saddest thing I saw recently was at dinner last night. Near me at one of the costliest dining experiences in the region was a weeping, very drunk woman and her sober  male companion. I'm guessing they left about $600 worth of food behind when they prematurely departed.

Since you mentioned the pastas at Thally, I thought it would be good to note that the current tagliatelle on the menu comes out with all the components separately on the plate. Separate piles of pasta, broccoli rabe, mushrooms, and a thin smear of sauce on the side. There was not enough sauce and the rest of the components were slightly dry on their own. The dish would have been so much better had it been a proper pasta dish with everything served together.

One reason I am growing weary of deconstructed food...

That is indeed sad. On the flip side, though, one of the most entertaining meals we had in London years ago involved the next table, at which a couple was breaking up. The older man was speaking quietly and soothingly and trying to restrain the gesticulations of the younger man, who was knocking back way too much wine while proclaiming, among other TMI, "It's not just the sex, OK?"

Ouch! Pass the gin, please.

Wow Tom - almost 800 currently online. Kudos! Is that a record?

Actually, there have been more online at once. Also, people tend to read a lot of these chats after they wrap up, or later in the week.

Long ago I was having lunch with a friend at the very old and very traditional Polish Restaurant in London Daquise. The tables are close together. The couple next to us had their heads together over the table talking intently. There was an atmosphere. Suddenly, the woman sat up straight and said 'what's all this phoning me from Dublin saturday night threatening to commit suicide'. My friend, who was having a hard day, put her head in her hands and said 'I feel like I'm in a Dostoevsky'.

Love it (well, provided that your story has a happy ending.)

Hi Tom, Any suggestions for a date night dinner? We'd like to try something new-ish to DC and somewhere it is not impossible to get a reservation since we are thinking of this Friday (can you tell we are really just desperate to ditch the kids for a night??). Thanks!

Ha!

 

Are we talking DC? I'd try the aforementioned Boss Shepherd's, Soi 38 for fun Thai or Ripple up in Cleveland Park.

I had a really appalling experience at the Inn at Little Washington a couple of weeks ago. I hadn't been there for years and my girlfriend hadn't been there at all so went for her birthday celebration and we had two separate experiences with gauche dinners (one was a table of loud drunks, the other was a guy wearing beach clothing who dropped his pants in the middle of the room to show his grandchildren his underwear). The food was great, as always. I talked to the manager the next day and he said that their hands are tied as to both dress code and reprimanding diners. Who can I nicely give feedback to? I'd like to go back someday, but not for that. Especially not given the price point of the place.

Yeow! It's up to the staff, as much as they are able, to protect the interests of diners who know how to behave. The drunks might have been steered to the garden outside, for instance, and pops should have been reminded to keep his pants up. "Sir, would you like a belt? Some of your fellow diners are concerned for you."

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. See you back here next week, I hope!

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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 contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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