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

Jan 11, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Tom - We were at Bistro Lepic the other night. One of our favorite restaurants. When we got the check we realized they had charged us $1 for splitting an appetizer. Why would they do such a stupid thing? It left a bad taste in our mouth, so to speak. Craig in Georgetown

Split charges are more common than you think, Craig, but the French bistro should have spelled out its policy in print or verbally.


There are a couple reasons for  adding on a dollar or two to dishes that are shared: an extra plate is involved (I know, I know) but more significantly,  some restaurants add extra food to the order to beef it up or make it more attractive.


Just curious: Did you get a chance to use Lepic's new system for ordering wine, off of iPads?



Happy Wednesday, gang. Lots of questions in trhe hopper this morning! Thanks for sending them in early, it really helps this slow typist who also likes to verify things before he responds.


The Going Out Gurus just posted a gallery of images of 20 of my favorite cheap eats around the area. I hope you find the line-up as delicious a view as  I do. Not to over-plug myself, but I'll be joining Chris Shott of the Washington City Paper and Missy Frederick of the Washington Business Journal on the Kojo Nnamdi show (WAMU 88.5) at 1 p.m. this afternoon. I hope you can tune in as we talk about Restaurant Week, restaurant reviewing and more.


Let's roll.

Tom- I am a frequent diner at Ba Bay in Eastern Market, or was. Lately the doors have been closed, lights off and no one home. one day I went by and they had a note about a water main break up on the door with promises to be open again soon, but since then, crickets. There's nothing on their website or at the location to indicate what's going on. Can you help us fans figure out what is happening? Thanks!

My Food section colleague, Tim Carman, wrote about the somewhat mysterious Nov. 18 closing of the Vietnamese outpost in the All We Can Eat blog.

Hi Tom! For my birthday I want to get some dim sum in Montgomery County. There is a lot of talk about New Fortune, Good Fortune, and Silver Fountain. Can you recommend one over another? We are moderately adventurous, so not looking for the most exotic. Just the tastiest place where we won't have to wait forever to the dim sum carts to come rolling by. Thanks!

I always have  good experiences at A & J, which has branches in both Annandale and Rockville (the original).


Unless things have changed since my last meal in Maryland, the Chinese small plates are served on trays rather than carts and the restaurant takes cash only. But that's a small price to pay for some great eating: smoked chicken, mustard greens tossed with bean curd skin, long fried-pork potstickers and on and on.

A follow up to someone who wrote in last week about a server giving her 13 year old a kid's cup. I have a 10 year old and a 4 year old and many a server has asked our 10 year old if he wants a kids cup or not. He wouldn't be offended either way but it is nice when they ask. And Kudos to a server at Hard Times in Old Town Alexandria who asked that question last week AND after we ate whispered in my ear to see if she should offer dessert. It was a weeknight meal and our kiddos know that there is no dessert then but it was very nice of her to not announce it and cause a uproar! What we could have spent on dessert, went to her for extra tip.

1) Most kids like to be asked, I agree, although I can still see the tiny 13-year-old being offended (through no fault of the server, but merely by being asked because of  the teen's size).


2) I hear a hundred parents of children applauding the server's wise dessert strategy at Hard Times in Old Town. 


Thanks for writing. What I like about your post is that it shines a light on jobs well done and offers practical advice for the industry. We are not just a group of whiners, in other words!

Tom, some foodie girlfriends and I are headed down to Miami this weekend to soak up some Vitamin D and have some fun. What lively spots should we hit up for a nice dinner, brunch (perhaps after a late night...) and/or a more casual lunch or dinner?

Everybody seems to love Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, which I have yet to visit, and a friend of mine who goes to Miami with regularity also sings the praises of the farm-to-table Yardbird, Pubbelly and Barceloneta (for Spanish tapas) and Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill for pan-Asian smal plates in a funky warehouse space. 


If anyone has other ideas for our Miami-bound gals, please chime in.

Spending a few days in Key West at the end if the month and am looking for dining options. Okay to have a few casual/local places for lunch/cocktails but also need higher-end places for work dinners. Thanks!

Key West, anyone?

Tom, in late February, my husband and I will be participating in a dinner by a top area chef at the chef's table. We anticipate cream, fats and extra calories ~ which can be a good thing sometimes! I am wondering how do you prep your stomach for a heavy caloric dose of rich foods when you are not used to it? Thanks.

Think of your forthcoming feast as Thanksgiving in February and 1) eat a good breakfast (oatmeal, fruit) followed by 2) a light lunch (soup or salad) and 3) a trip to the gym for at least 30 minutes of cardio. At dinner, try to drink a glass of water for every glass of wine you drink.


The recipe more or less works for me. I welcome other strategies from the audience.   

Had lunch there Saturday (first time) and was really unimpressed. Have you tried it, and if so, what did you think? I thought the food lacked flavor, with the exception of the burning hot, way too spicy sauce. I think this concept isn't going to make it.

Huh. After it opened, I called it the best fast-food idea in years, and awarded the concept two stars in my fall dining guide. I haven't been back to Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen since October, though.  Has anybody been there recently?

My wife and I have moved back to the Midwest after six years in the D.C. area and miss some of our favorite spots, Komi being one of them. We'll be back in town for business later this month and have reservations there. Should I stick with those or consider other options? Thanks from Missouri.

Gosh, I wouldn't pass up an opportunity to eat Johnny Monis's modern Greek food. When did you eat at Komi last?  If it was mere months ago, you might consider someplace new -- like the chef's excellent tribute to the food of northeastern Thailand, the tiny, no-reservations Litte Serow on the same block. But if it's been a year or more since Komi, do not cancel your reservation!

Gotta side with the poster here - split charges for an entree plate are understandable. But since when were appetizers designed for just one person? To charge extra to split an appetizer, which is generally considered to be a shared food, seems a bit uncalled for, even if the policy is spelled out clearly.

That thought occured to me as well. Split charges generally apply to main courses. My hunch is, somewhat more food may have been added to the two plates, so as not to make them look skimpy?  If the original poster can elaborate, please?

Just tried to look at the list of cheap eats and a video started playing. Some of us are at work and flipping back and forth between chat and projects. A video suddenly playing -- without warning -- is very disruptive at work. I wish the Post would stop this practice (among many other horrible web ideas). I'm a daily subscriber, by the way, so you already get my money.

Thanks for your feedback. You can mute the sound at least, right?

Hi Tom, I dined at a new (to me) restaurant on New Year's Eve. I arrived on time for the reservation and offered to wait at the bar for my 2 friends; however, the hostess decided to seat me alone and they ended up being just over 20 minutes late. Just at the 20 minute mark, the hostess came to the table to tell me exactly when she needed the table back. I was so surprised but quickly said that we would give the table back. Admittedly, I am a hostess and have been for the last few years. Thus, I am more than sensitive to the tardiness of my party, the fact it was a holiday, etc. The restaurant wasn’t half-full at that point and just half full at our ultimate departure. I would almost always tell a server/manager when I'd need a table back, but never the customer. Am I wrong here? I sort of wanted to leave before the meal even began. Signed, "Just a Cover"

The time to give diners a time limit on their table is at the  time the reservation is being made or at the time of reconfirmation (or better yet, on both occasions, because folks forget, or might need a prod). 


On the one hand, 20 minutes is the end of the grace period for tardy diners; on the other, I think the hostess could have been more diplomatic in her announcement.

Opera, on Duval street (it's back in a little alley), has great Italian in a quiet, small, really nice setting. If you need breakfast/brunch - Blue Heaven is wonderful! There is also a Cuban place - El Siboney - tucked in the middle of a neighborhood that is great (though it can be a long wait for a table.)

Three promising ideas in the tropics. Thanks for writing in.

Do you have any recommendations for somewhere participating in Restaurant Week that would be a good value for a vegetarian? My experience is that the appetizer, entree and dessert sans meat/fish doesn't add up to $35 in almost all of the places I've tried.

I don't have time to look at all 200 + menus at the moment. Maybe a fellow vegetarian can help you out before we sign off today?

Can you please give some tips on being a good Restaurant Week customer? I'm going to a high-end restaurant tonight on the cheap thanks to the promotion.

Advice? Be open to try something you haven't tried before. At the best places, the chefs offer some of what they do best: their signatures (albeit in smaller portions or slightly modified for the cost structure). And tip 20 percent or more if you feel the staff merited it.


What "new" (in last 18 months) restaurants in Washington would you visit for restaurant week - just in Washington, not suburbs please. Thanks !

Off the top of my head, probably Elisir, Enzo Fargione's new Italian destination; Fiola, in part because I adore chef Fabio Trabocchi's regular lunch deal at the bar so much; and Graffiato, because it's so darn hard to get in Mike Isabella's joint for dinner.

Hi Tom, A few friends and I went to Oyamel last night and had a really great dinner. There was only one snag - Oyamel's RW menu (which states RW 2012 on the top) lists a scallops dish as one of the selections. When I ordered, the selection was not on the menu. The waitress informed me that the menu on the website was from last year (really?) and that they couldn't substitute. I emphasized that the menu was posted on their website and she told me she would see if the chefs could substitute, which they ultimately did. I was thankful for their accommodation (I have a mild allergy to shellfish - I can't eat shrimp or lobster, but mussels & scallops are ok for now thankfully), but annoyed that they did not fully update their menu on their website. When are folks going to start listening to you? Websites are so important!

Details, details. They matter!


Let this be a reminder to all the restaurants participating in Restaurant Week to keep their menus -- actually, all their information -- as fresh as possible. 

Your comments from last week convinced us to head to Little Serow for my belated bday dinner last night, and I am so glad we did. The staff was so responsive and welcoming, and from the first few (spicy; it's no joke!) courses through to the deliciously crispy ribs, the meal was a wonderful experience. Kudos to everyone who keeps everything functioning so well, and to the chef for making such inspired food. Thank you again, Tom!

I'm thrilled to hear that your experience mirrored mine. Thanks for the feedback.

Tom - I have to conduct an informal interview (of a potential student) for my university and I need helping finding a neutral place to hold it. For other interviews I have gone to cafes and coffee shops, so I'm hoping you (or other chatters) can help. The interview will take place this weekend (time tbd) and I need place somewhere between Chevy Chase and Foggy Bottom, an area I don't know that well. Thank you!

Just to get the ball rolling, I'll cast my vote for Teaism in Dupont Circle. Chatters?

I've been to ShopHouse once. I was impressed that when I asked for a spicy sauce I actually got a spicy sauce, but I didn't think any of the flavors were that great, and felt the chicken was over done. I've not been back, and don't know many people who have made it a regular in their rotations. They need to go beyond just having spicy for me to enjoy it. Food from that part of the world has a lot of complexity of flavor (maybe I'm spoiled from having lived there) and ShopHouse doesn't translate that well to me.

Gotcha. Thanks for the feedback. I thought it was nuanced the two or three times I visited early on.

Hi Tom, I know you all get tired of hearing about it, but cheerful comments like "Thanks for your feedback. You can mute the sound at least, right?" really just make it worse.

Hey, I'm sorry. Not sure what you want me to say, though. I'll pass your complaint on to the higher-ups. (How's that?)

Camille's is great casual and also serves up fabulous breakfasts. It's a long-time favorite

Another Key West tip.

You must go to Pepe's Cafe in Key West for lunch. Get the catch of the day. The BEST fish I have ever had (blackened mahi mahi on the day I was there). For higher end everyone raves about Blue Heaven (though I have never been). I woudl avoid the larger restaurants that are part or resorts, my experience was they are as bland as you'd expect them to be!

I want to pack my swim suit and catch a flight right now.

At least in my case whenever I'm overly hungry the food I eat tends to taste better than when I'm somewhat full. Being a food critic do you ever take into account your level of hunger when measuring the taste of food or are you able to filter out this phenomenon when judging?

I wasn't thinking that same thought just last night, over a mediocre meal of carne asada and thin margaritas at a new little restaurant that I don't think I'll be writing about. I had had a light lunch and a rigorous work-out at the gym and was looking forward to a good meal. I ended up eating too many chips and salsa and pushing away the entrees on the table. So, I was hungry, but I still knew the food I was consuming was less than stellar.

Hey Tom, You're a star. Always appreciate your reviews and chats. I'm hoping you can recommend a restaurant within 15 minutes of North Bethesda (Rockville, Potomac, etc) that has private dining space for about 30 guests. It's a corporate group, so it needs to be a bit more on the conservative side. If we were in DC, I'd compare what I was looking for to the Source, Marcel's, or Cafe Milano. I'm a pro at private dining in DC (it's my job!) by I know little to nothing about MD. Thanks for any recommendations.

That's a toughie, and you may have to rent out the restaurant for your group in case there aren't private rooms available. First place that comes to mind is Bezu in Potomac.  I'll throw your query out to the group, too.

For higher-end places try Prime 951 Steakhouse or Antonia's for Italian. For casual, try Azur for Mediterranean food, Ambrosia for sushi, Blue Heaven for American, or Cafe Marquesa for American. For strong drinks, try the White Harpon.

This is your lucky day, Key West-Bound.

Looking for great Japanese for an upcoming birthday dinner. Makoto vs Sushi Taro? Is the omakase dinner at Sushi Taro worth the cost difference to Maokoto's full dinner?

Makoto is kind of rigid, starting at the door, where a woman orders you to replace your shoes with slippers, and continuing at the (low) table, where the tasting menu is delightful but seems not to change much from year to year.  I'd spend a bit more and reserve a seat for the extravagent omakase in the back of Sushi Taro.

I'm taking my wonderful girlfriend to Graffiato tonight for her birthday, but I'd love to add another stop close by either for a drink or a desert. Walking distance is preferable as we are both pretty excited by the prospect of Prosecco on draft... Thanks Tom!

I vote for a margarita at Oyamel, a Manhattan at Capital Grille or just about anything Gina Chersevani whips up at PS7's. Dessert? Head to the bar at Zaytinya.

My wife is dragging me to Elizabeth's Gone Raw in two weeks. Please tell me I'll like it. Your thoughts?

My thoughts. (Try it, you'll like it, and maybe learn something new. I did.)

I'm the Aunt who wrote in on 11/16 asking for ideas on a nice place to take my niece for her birthday dinner. You recommended Villa Mozart, and we had a wonderful time. The food was delicious - even the calamari, which my niece ordered and then was surprised to learn was not deep-fried but instead almost looked like noodles in sauce! And the waiter was attentive and really made the evening feel special. I had never heard of Villa Mozart before you recommended it, but I'm sure I'll be back. (And to the chatter who worried that a restaurant dinner might be too impersonal and thought I should cook with my niece instead - we cook with her all the time! She enjoys it, but it just doesn't say "special occasion," which Villa Mozart certainly did.)

Your post made my day. Thanks for the update regarding  that lovely Italian restaurant in Fairfax.

Hi Tom, Thank you for holding these chats, I always learn so much! My colleagues and I would like to experience Restaurant Week for the first time in DC-- however, because I work part-time, I am going to have my toddler in tow. Are there any participating restaurants you would recommend? The crowd loves a good burger and fries, though we are pretty adventurous and also appreciate sushi, Indian, etc. I would say the only major limitation is that one of the people in the group is a strict vegetarian. I would really appreciate your recommendations!!

Among the more family-friendly participants on the list are District Commons in Foggy Bottom, Casa Nonna and Firefly in Dupont Circle and Jaleo and Zaytinya in Penn Quarter. 

I'm a 5ft senior. Restaurants could avoid the request to split if they would offer half portions or a lunch size. I know Olive Garden isn't your idea of Italian but at some of their restaurants a diner can get the lunch version instead of the dinner version which isn't suited to my appetite. When traveling as we were in Las Vegas, we were absolutely disgusted at the large portions for all meals. We split lunch sandwiches which were enormous. Restaurants need to satisfy all diners not just the big eaters.

I love, love, love the idea of half-size entrees, both for light appetites like yourself and the mindful eaters among us.  Portion size is a chicken-or-egg kind of question: Who is  to blame, the customers who want to leave with shopping bags of leftovers or the restaurants for unloading mountains of food on us?

Hi Tom! My husband and I got a very generous gift card to a well-known downtown restaurant for Christmas. We just noticed that the fine print on the gift card notes that it can't be used for "beverages, tax, or gratuities." Gratuity I can understand, but why the ban on using it to cover wine? The gift was from some out of town wine buffs, and it was rather large, so I'm quite sure they intended it to cover the entire meal. And notably, the online gift certificate request form doesn't mention any of these restrictions. Is this a common practice? Thanks!

You need to clarify the restaurant's policy with a manager at the restaurant in question and tell him or her what you just told me. I can't believe "beverages" aren't covered on the gift certificate. In fact, I've never seen liquids excluded from such a deal.

I know LS doesn't take reservations and it's walk-in only. I'm going on Saturday night and just wanted to know what people's experience has been like with regards to wait times? Thanks

I've always shown up right around opening time, because I had to get in certain nights, and couldn't take the chance of being turned away. From what I've heard, there's no predicting when the place will be busy, though. I'd love to hear from anyone who has been there other than at 5:30.

Hopefully I'm not too late! Thanks in advance! I'm meeting my S.O.'s mother in the next few weeks. She is coming in from out of town, where would be a good place to give her something unique to DC in Penn Quarter?

You could introduce her to some of the best Indian food on the East Coast at Rasika or some of the most exciting Spanish plates at Jaleo or whatever wonderful Asian food Scott Drewno is serving at the Source, next to the always-enjoyable Newseum or ...

The new founding farmers in potomac has a private room upstairs.

Good to know.

Wouldn't it make sense to share these reviews also?

Often, I do. But you don't want a steady stream of don't go/don't go/don't gos, do you?  (Can you tell I've had a lot of mediocre meals lately?) I'm talking here about a mom and pop that you might not need to know about because it's so small.

I just went to Dino for RW Dinner. You get to choose of their main menu. The veggie pasta was mushroom canneloni (sp, sorry) and I believe there was a farro dish for secondi; they have veggie starters if you don't want to do a half-pasta. You get bread, any choice of the dessert menu for dessert, a chocolate truffle and some of their house made "cello." I ended up there early, and they have veggie bar snacks while you imbibe on your first cocktail. Hope that helps!

It does. Grazie.

Dear Tom, So glad you went and saved me the trip I had not planned! Why? The original one on the Hill is gross. Mexican and Tex-Mex are really different cuisines so the neighbors (of which I am one) wanted Mexican but got Tex-Mex instead. Hope this place goes down fast as that's a nice little location that could be used for something interesting. Humph!

The poster is reacting to my preview of the new Tortilla Coast in Logan Circle in today's Food section. (Sigh.)

My husband and I split a sandwich at the bar at the new Market Tavern in Clarendon, and not only did they not charge us (which I probably would have been annoyed at) but they gave us seperate plates with what seemed like a double order of fries (when all we wanted was it cut in half). Very happily surprised and would push me towards going back.

Sounds like a new restaurant that's eager to please!

Just an FYI to the diner looking for smaller portions. Sonoma on Capitol Hill offers small plates and half portions of their pastas. I, myself, would never dare order a full portion because the half is just right!

Reader to the rescue!

Hey Tom! Had some great eats in Key West last year, for the chatter's reference - Ambrosia for Sushi, -El Siboney for Cuban. Pisces was also a fun meal (lots of original Warhols on the wall) though the food, while solid, was a bit dated. Vino's On Duval was a nice wine bar that felt more local than touristy. - Missy Frederick

Advice from a pro. Thanks, Missy (and see you soon).

We can't always go to the places you've recommended, and knowing where not to go is as important, possibly more so, than knowing where to go.

I agree. And 95 percent of the time, I'll steer you away from places I find under-whelming.

My group of 4 shared a couple appetizers at Ris. Ris split their ceviche appetizer into 4 different martini glasses. It was so cool of them to do that, and of course, no surcharge!

Now that is thoughtful.

What do you think of the new atmosphere and food?

All will be revealed in my review of the retooled restaurant in the Magazine Jan. 29.

I know it's late. But which is better, CitiZen or Komi for hubby's bday? Thanks!

Gosh, both terrific restaurants with excellent chefs. Depends on what you're looking for? You can't go wrong with either, really. CityZen is the more formal of the two, if that helps.

Seasons 52 has a very nice space.

I agree, provided the group is on board with healthful dining.

Just a little thank you – had gotten the idea to go there from your chats – I am German and really never eat Germanic food in restaurants over here but wanted to give it a try. Perfect place after a show – Barman created personal cocktails for us based on our likes, we chatted with the owner, met one of the Chefs from Germany and enjoyed a fabulous dinner – esp. loved the lobster – pumpernickel – poached egg starter (does not sound very Austrian but is fabulous).

Toll! (Great!) Seasonal is a special place.

Hi Tom, We live in the District, but are treating ourselves to a ZipCar next weekend, for a Saturday lunch, to explore places that are not accessible to us on the metro. We are probably looking for something casual and ethnic. Last time we had a similar adventure, we went to Present Restaurant. We've walked from the metro to Eden Center, if that gives you an idea of what is not "metro accessible" for us. Any ideas? Thanks so much!

I'm eager to try (again) Spice Xing in Rockville and  Bamian in Falls Church, among many other places in the 'burbs.


That's all for today, gang. I'm heading over to the WAMU studio now.  Let's meet back here next week, same time, same station. Thanks for a lively hour.

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: