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

Jan 04, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

I have seen the coming soon sign at this site (old borders across from where ed Sage used to be -- showing my age....) for weeks on my commute home to VA. I now see The Hamilton has opened. I've checked out their website -- but wondered if you've been yet or heard any rumblings on the streets about how it is doing? Thanks! And Happy New Year!

Hamilton, from the Clyde's family of restaurants, is one of the largest, and most ambitious, places to eat in the city.

There's a little something for everyone (sushi, burgers, duck carbonara, Maine lobster) on the menu, which is served 24 hours a day. I plan to preview the behemoth, which also features live music,  later this month. Stay tuned. 


Brrr! Happy Hump Day, gang. Thanks for joining me for another 60 minutes of food and restaurant talk.

Hi Tom - The wonderful boyfriend has offered to take me anywhere I'd like to go for my birthday dinner, within fiscal reality (ie, no Citronelle or Komi for us, at least not THIS year). I was thinking of heading to Little Serow and wondered whether it has continued to live up to its positive initial impression. Other than that, might you have other restaurants to throw into the mix (metro accessibility is a must)? Thank you!

My review of Little Serow comes out in print January 15 (earlier online).  If you like hot and sour flavors and enjoy eating with your fingers, this newcomer in Dupont Circle may be the perfect venue for your birthday.


Keep in mind, the tiny Thai restaurant doe not take reservations and the $45 tab can escalate quickly if you like to drink.  Happy early birthday, by the way.

Your review of Mio was pretty much entirely positive, seeming really out of step with the fact that you only gave it 2.5 stars. What were some of the things you didn't like?

 (If only I had more space!) As I mentioned in the review of the refreshed Latin American restaurant, I didn't think the quail was as exciting as some of the other dishes on the menu, nor did the beef steak make as vivid an impression as the herb sauce it came with.  Also, the alcapurrias were bland in comparison to some of the other fried snacks I tried.


2.5 stars, by the way, is "good-to-excellent" in my book. I think that's a pretty strong endorsement, no?

I hope I'm wrong about this, but it seems like when I submit an observation about a restaurant that is on what seems to be your list of faves - an observation based usually on facts and not opinion -- (e.g., Palena, Buck's), it never appears in this chat. Am I imagining things?

I think you might be!


Keep in mind, I get a zillion questions during the hour, and I can address only a fraction of what comes my way. (Blame it on my slow typing or on the fact most of the comments are submitted live rather than in advance, the latter being my preference. Hint, hint.)


So. What restaurant(s) do you want to comment on? There are no sacred cows here.

About four years ago my husband and I had the most amazing appetizer at 2 Amy's: delicious and fresh-tasting anchovies served in good olive oil that we spread on slices of crusty bread. Unfortunately it's now a haul for us to get up to 2 Amy's to repeat the experience. Do you know of any place in Northern Virginia or downtown DC that does something similar?

The Spanish equal to that snack is toasted bread spread with crushed tomato and meaty Spanish anchovies at Jaleo in Penn Quarter. The dish is $8.50 -- and divine.

As a follow-up to last week's commentator looking for a NYE menu--at least they knew the restaurant would be open. Twice in the past month we have made our way to favorite places on 14th Street, only to find them dark: one for two weeks of renovations, the other not serving Sunday brunch on New Year's Day. Restaurants today have many options for announcing these things --web sites, Twitter accounts, Facebook, phone systems--and none of them had been updated. What can we, the customers, do to improve this?

Vote with your time and money -- and head to a worthy competitor. Better yet, call the restaurant that isn't updating its information, ask to speak to someone in authority and let him or her know about your frustration. It's the fair and pro-active way to deal with such problems.

In the District, 2 people, $50 budget. Where would you go? (We need to cut back how much we spend eating out, but love going out to eat.)

Have you been to Toki Underground? The H St NE noodle bar (which is actually above The Pug) is great fun and the handful of ramen selections cost $10 a bowl.   Just be sure to show up early for one of too few counter seats or you'll risk an hour or longer wait.

Hi Tom, After a hectic holiday season, my husband and I wish to have a long, lingering dinner this Saturday night to catch up with each other and make plans for 2012. We want someplace where we won't feel rushed and can hear each other speak. I was thinking starting with a cocktail at the Oval Room and then walking across the street to the Bombay Club. But we live in McLean and are wary of a cocktail each plus a shared bottle of wine followed by driving across the river (hence the lingering). So if you can recommend a nice substitute in Arlington, McLean, Falls Church, Tysons, Vienna, Oakton, reston, we are all ears. thanks for taking on this challenge!

What about a booth at the Afghan restaurant Bamian in Falls Church? Or a table at the Greek newcomer Nostos in Tysons Corner?  Neither is an Oval Room, but both serve interesting food.

we went to a performance there last week-beautiful space, btw. They offered a limited menu-we sampled the thin crust pizza and sushi which we liked. Nothing you haven't tasted before but well prepared. Good beer wine and wine list with lots of servers. They plan to be open 24/7-not sure how that will work

I know there's an audience for late-night dining in this early-to-bed town, but it will be interesting to see how busy Hamilton is on, say, a Tuesday at 3 a.m.

Oyamel was featured on the Cooking Channel's Unique Eats. The theme was Mexican, and they praised it highly. However, the thought of eating corn fungus turned me totally off.

I wouldn't damn huitlacoche, also known as corn smut, until you've tried it. Mexicans treat it as a delicacy, as Americans might a truffle.  The ingredient has a pleasant earthy, mushroomlike flavor.

Hi Tom, I went to one of the best restaurants inthe city for NYE with 3 other friends. We showed up 45 minute early to have drinks at the bar, and they sat us after 1,5 hours.During the last 45 minutes they kept telling us they were setting our table. Then our service was never together. They missed one of the wines with one of the dishes, once they brought wine without the glass and rushed back to get glasses, once they brought the dish out and realized they hadn't poured the wine yet, and once they poured a "white burgundy" when I could see the "Chardonnay" writing on the bottle. I didn't want to complain and make a scene because it was NYE, but obviously it was disappointing. And they didn't apoogize once during the whole evening, even though they didn't have an attitude, clearly they were struggling. But I would have expected them to comp the wine tasting or the 2 rounds of drinks at the bar, or at least a gesture to show they cared. The food was wonderful and I have a lot of respect for the chef/owner who was in the kitchen that night. What would you have done? A note to the restaurateurs - just be honest when you have issues. If they had told us we could have probably had some food at the bar and then go to our second location a bit early (where they honored us right away) or have understood that there is an issue. It became a night I don't want to remember except for the food.

How kind of you not to name the offending restaurant.  (You know we're curious, though, right?)


Given your long wait time for a confirmed reservation, you definitely deserved to have the drinks at the bar comped.  If I were you, I'd send the chef a personal note, thanking him for the delicious food, but also pointing out the multiple flaws in the evening (for which you were probably paying a lot of money). He deserves -- he needs -- to know what transpired in the front of the house.

what are some good healthy restaurants or healthy yummy meals to try?

The (upscale) restaurant that leaps to mind is Elizabeth's Gone Raw, the formal vegan dining room downtown. 


Among the more mainstream venues, you should check out Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle (for its sushi), Pho 75 in Arlington (for its noodle soups), Zaytinya (for its Greek and Turkish small plates) and ... hey, readers, care to weigh in?

Hi Tom, Writing to mention something happened to us on New Year's Eve. We picked up a nice and normally out of our budget restaurant based on the menu information on the web and made reservations. When we showed up we were told there was only a 6-coure menu for an outrageous amount but couldn't say a thing since it was a date and they didn't tell us how much the 6-courses costed. With wine pairing it was almost $200 per person with tip, and obviously we were baffled. NYE is important to us but not that much, so can you please ask restaurants to update their websites especially when they have out of the usual offerings? Thanks.

Am I reading this right? The restaurant site made no mention of a special NYE menu? Shame on them. But, honestly, to protect yourself from over-spending, you should have confirmed what the game plan was on one of the biggest and busiest dining out occasions of the year. Most big deal restaurants feature special menus on NYE.

Tom, My friends and I are increasingly concerned about the potential for getting hit with a DUI if say two average weight middle aged women have a pre-dinner cocktail (each) and then share a bottle of wine over dinner. If we choose not to finish a bottle of wine, can we bring home the leftovers? Do the rules vary among DC, MD and VA?

You will be pleased to know that the District and two states can accomodate your wish to take home leftover grape juice. I do so frequently these days.

I had a good healthy lunch at Seasons 52 in Rockville, MD. I especially loved that they had tiny desserts - just a shot glass worth of sweetness to end the meal.

I should have thought of flagging the mindful chain, having reviewed the branches in Rockville and McLean last year. Thanks for suggesting it.

Hi Tom, as always, thanks for all that you do. We love your reviews and chats and have found some amazing gems because of them- your philadelphia review from a few years ago was really great- I discovered sweetbreads for the first time at your recommendation- was it Fond? Anyway, we have friends from Philly coming to visit us and always like to choose our DC favorites for them. At home they like all the Garces restaurants, here we've taken them to some of your best recs- but I'm stumped a bit for brunch. We've done the champagne and buffet at Bombay Club, the bacon bloody mary and brunch at Poste, and Ted's with them. Any good DC standouts that we should consider? (and I'm looking at America Eats, but they dont open until 11:30- that might be too late.) Happy New year!

What a kind note. Back at you! I couldn't do this job without the help of readers like yourself.


Have you been to the dim sum brunch at the Source next to the Newseum? If not, go, go, go.  It's sleek and luscious and certainly different from the usual omelets and French toast you can get elsewhere.

The moral of all the stories submitted to you seems to be - don't eat out on NYE! I would include other high-pressure holidays too - Valentine's Day, Mother's Day . . .

Yep. I always tell folks to celebrate the holiday before or after the actual date to avoid the inevitable high tabs and crowded dining rooms. 

Reviewing 100 Degrees out in Fairfax when there are so many restaurants close in that need reviews. Shame on you. Tom your New year's Resolution should be to only review restaurants with in a 12 miles radius of the WH.

Please tell me you aren't serious. 100 Degrees is a really fun addition to the scene -- I can count the number of reliable Chinese spots on one hand, maybe two -- and there a lot of Post readers in the Fairfax area, believe it or not.  Why would I not review it?

Here's a friendly hint to servers - if a child appears older than 5 and does not ask for a kid's menu, serve them a drink in an adult glass unless the parents ask otherwise. We took my daughter out for her 13th birthday, and when the waitress brought water glasses to the table, she gave my daughter her water in a plastic kids cup despite the adult menu in front of her. My daughter is petite for her age and is very sensitive to being small. Though the waitress obviously did not mean to offend my daughter, the reality is that she made my daughter cry because it made her feel babyish on a night that she was celebrating a big birthday. Not a fun way to start a celebration.

My sympathy to everyone involved. As a parent, you obviously hurt for your child, but you really can't blame the server. I know a number of children who get to read, if not always order from, the "adult" menu when they dine out.

Just to counter some of the NYE horror stories, I want to say that I and 5 friends (all women of a certain age) had a perfectly lovely NYE dinner at Lavandou this year. The food was wonderful, and the service was pleasant and not at all rushed (we expected to spend about two hours and ended up spending nearly three hours). We've had some disappointments in previous years, so we were extremely pleased with our choice this year.

Kudos to the little French restaurant in Cleveland Park!

Happy New Year Tom! My father will turn 90 the first week of February and my sister and I were thinking of having someone come to his apartment to cook an elegant dinner instead of braving the cold to go out. Do you have any recommendations? Due to a soy allergy, most asian cuisines won't work, otherwise, we're open to different styles.

You want a private chef? If there's someone out there who is willing and able, feel free to send me an email with your name and contact number ( Obviously, I also need the poster of this query to provide me with the same.

Hey Tom! A group of us will be up in NYC next month and are deciding on our restaurant choices. Definitely going to try Locanda Verde and we loved Kefi last time we were there. Any other suggestions? Thanks and Happy New Year!

Add to your list Danji, the adorable modern Korean outpost on West 52nd;  The Dutch, home to the talented Andrew Carmellini on Sullivan and Spring streets; and Tertulia, the cool new Spanish place in Greenwich Village.


Happy 2012 to you as well.

To have to venture outside the beltway in NOVA to review 100 Degree several times must have been very stressful and trying for Tom. We should all send him some comfort food for lunch to his desk at the WP. Hope you have recovered Tom. I guess it will be another 12 mos before you venture out this way again.

You know what? I can't win.

What does the Post Food Critic do to ring in the new year?

He invites a few close friends to his home for a light dinner of smoked salmon and sable, Caesar salad and gingerbread cake  and watches uncensored Family Guy episodes. And falls asleep on the couch before midnight.

Kazan's in McLean, next to old firehouse, has some of the best lamb chops ever. They come from a small farm in Lancaster Pa. Their house reds are a decent bargain too.

Reader to the rescue! Thanks for the idea.

Hi Tom ~ wanted to thank you for your recommendations for 4 dinners during our between Christmas and New Year's week. You listed Palena, Oval Room, Ethiopic and Sushi Taro as the four places you'd go, but we only ended up going to the first two. Palena the first night, which didn't knock our socks off but was pretty good. Loved the gnocci/cauliflower/truffle dish the best. Next time we'll try the Market instead of the Dining room. The service was a bit on the inexperienced side as well, but the sommelier was spot on with her descriptions and enthusiasm. The next night was The Oval Room and honestly, it was fabulous from start to finish. The four of us had the tasting menu and they were delicious, unique, creative, well executed, and showcased a variety of seasonal ingredients. When we were seated the mixologist came over and said he'd be our waiter as well, which kind of made my eyebrow shoot up, but he was phenomenal, knew all about the food as well as the drinks and wine, and made sure we all enjoyed the experience, which we did. Next time we'll shoot for the other two restaurants, just didn't work out schedule-wise this time. But thanks again! You have, once again, proven your value to me. Happy New Year.

And on that sweet note (thank you, LWDC), I bid you all a delicious remainder of the week.


See you next Wednesday at 11 a.m.

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. 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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