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

Jan 14, 2015

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 are some top places to hit next week for RW, especially newer places as I and my frienders have hit many of the finer DC dining spots?

 High on my list, if you haven't already been: Either Rasika or Rasika West End, because Indian food is my favorite cuisine; Bibiana and the Oval Room, primarily to check out the work of their promising new chefs; Fiola near Penn Quarter for luxe Italian and Mio downtown because I think its own a delicious up-swing.   Over at Rogue 24, meanwhile, chef R.J. Cooper is calling to me with such novelties as sea urchin with mango gazpacho and  lamb neck confit on his three-course, $35 "Inspiration" menu.


THIS JUST IN: For the 14 years he owned Palena in Cleveland Park, chef Frank Ruta never had to worry about what he would serve during Restaurant Week because his French-Italian statement didn’t participate in the winter and summer dining promotions.


This year is different. Palena is a memory and Ruta has been acquired by the boutique Capella hotel in Georgetown, which is participating in the forthcoming Restaurant Week (Jan. 19-Jan. 25) by offering  customers in its tony Grill Room the usual deals on meals, with a twist:  Previews of a few dishes Ruta hopes to put on his inaugural menu, which doesn’t debut for another month.



The Grill Room’s three-course, $20.15 lunch menu will feature a blood orange salad and roast chicken, a Palena signature, with anchovy-braised greens and black-eye peas. The hotel restaurant’s three-course, $35.15 dinner will showcase rapini with fried lemon and ricotta salata and beef brisket with turmeric-spiced carrots and cornbread.


“Everyone loves beef and chicken,” says Ruta of the menu he created for Restaurant Week, which will also welcome diners who don’t eat meat with unspecified appetizers and entrees. Both Restaurant Week menus conclude with baked Alaska built with cinnamon cappuccino ice cream and flourless chocolate cake.  A la carte selections from the restaurant’s standing script will also be available.


“We’re getting settled in,” says Ruta of his first full week in Capella’s kitchen. For the moment, “we’re changing bits and pieces.” The Grill Room will benefit from the hiring of a few Palena veterans, including pastry chef Aggie Chin and sous chef Jonathon Pham. Ruta has also retained the hotel’s sous chef, Andrew Ho.


Good morning, gang. Thanks for joining me for another hour of dining chat.  Next week, I'm heading out of town early Wednesday afternoon, so I'll be starting the chat at 10 a.m. instead of the usual 11 a.m. As always, I appreciate getting your questions and comments the day before we go live, so I can better respond to them.


Let's begin.


Tom, after a disappointing dinner out, what do you do? Do you eat elsewhere or do you peer in your refrigerator? Do you ever get depressed after a few bad outings? I do. Also, thank you. Your recommendations never disappoint.

Were you trailing me last week? I ask, because I had several seriously disappointing meals and I'm up against some pretty tight deadlines, given I'll be on the road a lot the next month: New York, Miami, Madrid, San Sebastian.


If I'm on deadline, I typically go to a second lunch or dinner with my fingers crossed. If not, I sometimes go home and see  what my significant other has put in the refrigerator, or open whatever leftovers I may have brought home with me from another restaurant. (Mmmm. Lobster risotto.) Almost always, I have as emergency fuel home-made chicken soup in the freezer and roasted almonds in the pantry.


 Chatters, what's your strategy after a bad restaurant meal?

We had a restaurant in our community open between Christmas and New Years. There were many posts on our community's facebook group that seemed to say different things. Some said it was open, some said it will open soon, others said, it was a soft opening. What is a soft opening? It seems to me that either a place is open or it isn't.

"Soft" openings are a way for new restaurants to ease into business, sometimes by offering discounts or limited menus or by not taking reservations.


The way I look at it, if the door is open, the lights are on and the restaurant is charging full fare, it's open, plain and simple.

My husband's birthday is coming up. He loves spicy food and is an adventurous eater, so I'm thinking I want to take him to a Thai restaurant for dinner. We'd prefer to stay in the city so we can go out afterwards. Any recommendations?

My first choice is Little Serow in Dupont Circle, which has some of the best, and spiciest, Thai cooking anywhere on the East Coast.  But, as I wrote in my story on no-reservations dining, the storefront requires would-be diners to wait outside. A date with Little Serow is hard to plan, in other words.


My second choice in the city would be the handsome Soi 38 downtown, which calls to hot heads with its teasing shrimp lemongrass soup and marinated fried chicken served with a fiery dipping sauce, among other options.


Another possibility is the new Thip Khao in Columbia Heights, although the menu is Laotian, not Thai (but similar).

How do you decide, after a disappointing meal, whether it's worth going back to or dropping? What makes a restaurant earn a bad review and what makes it not worth a mention at all?

If a place is big and bad (noteworthy in some respect, because of its location or chef or brand), I'm more apt to return and write it up after several more visits. If the place is small and wouldn't otherwise be missed, I'd probably not go back for a second helping.

Hi Tom. I went to Lyon Hall with my spouse and a friend recently. When we checked in for our reservation, they asked for my cell number so they could text me when the table was ready. Is this becoming a thing? I don't like the idea of having to keep an eye on my phone while enjoying a cocktail and pre-dinner conversation with a friend. Moreover, the place isn't that large -- it wasn't all that hard for them to find us.

How silly -- unless you were planning to step outside.


Whatever happened to those small devices we used to get, the ones that lit up or vibrated when tables were ready? I prefer those to texts -- and having to monitor my phone -- when I'm waiting at the bar.

I really love food, and I know that steakhouses are often cast aside as places that don't offer the culinary variety that a diner might crave. There are lots of great steakhouses in DC now, with more opening all the time. Which, in your opinion, are the best ones to visit for a fantastic meal with the excellent service and environment expected of a high-end steakhouse?

I think there are a lot of  places to eat steak, but not a lot of places where you can have the whole enchilada, so to speak: prime meat, great wine, ace service and an attractive environment in which to savor it all.  The exception to that rule: the new Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, which I'm writing about in this Sunday's Magazine.  (Just remember to let someone else pay for the pleasure. DFDE requires a lot of cash.)

I was pleasantly surprised to see Fiola Mare is doing lunch for Restaurant Week. Only 2 choices in each course but they all sound great. This could be the only time I can afford to eat there.

So, go!

I asked last week about dinner near the National Cathedral and you recommended La Piquette. Well. We are already planning to go back to eat there soon. The food was wonderful -- it was such a treat to have a salad without a hint of sweetness in it. I want my bitter greens dressed without cranberries or balsamic vinegar. The roasted bone marrow was amazing (and accompanied by more of that salad). The garbure you mentioned was not on the menu but I loved the smoking-hot melt-in-your-mouth cassoulet. My husband was equally satisfied with his beef burgundy. And I wish all American waiters could be trained by French bistros. We were never interrupted but the waiters moved constantly through the room, glancing at their tables, and an eye-meet summoned them instantly. The second night we enjoyed our meal at Ardeo + Bardeo, and my Negroni matched the roasted brussels sprouts with apple and walnuts perfectly. I had appetizers and my husband had the mushroom pizza. It was an interesting contrast; we liked A + B but it underscored our preference for classic French cooking (e.g. no cranberries in the salad). So thank you once again for making our 38th anniversary special.

Wonderful to hear. And congrats on 38 years together.

Since Valentines Day is on a Saturday this year, my boyfriend and I are thinking about going out to a nice brunch instead of dinner that day. If you had to choose, which of these restaurants would you go to for the best brunch experience: Blue Duck Tavern, Iron Gate, Fiola Mare, or Le Diplomate? Thanks!!

Smart move! 


Here's what I would do: At the same time, one of you try for Le Diplomate, one of you try for Fiola Mare. Grab whichever dining treat has room for you (and good luck with that).

At a small place like Lyon Hall, it seems that texting when the table is ready isn't necessary, but I disagree with the original poster when it comes to places like Roses and Little Serow. If I'm going to have to wait over an hour for a table, I definitely like the flexibility of going elsewhere for a drink or two before I get the text summoning me back to the restaurant. It also doesn't hurt that I live a couple of blocks from Little Serow and can actually go home while I wait for my table to be ready :)

If only the rest of us were so lucky!

Do you dine out or do you take a week off? I usually dislike the menus offered since they are usually adjusted.

I tend to use Restaurant Week as a chance to check out mom and pops in the suburbs -- or hit the road. 


Keep in mind, every Restaurant Week participant is different; some restaurants -- the smart operators -- offer more than the minimal and really want to impress you.  It's worth your time to investigate.

You lucky devil--had some amazing meals in Spain and just over the border in France. I also recommend sampling some of the local Basque cider--far better than the wine in that region.

Good to know. Gracias!

Finally made it over to Ghibellina and while I loved the food--amazing pizza, gnocchi and a burrata appetizer, I would hesitate to go back. It was SOO loud and having a conversation became an arms race of noise, competing with the tables nearby. That's one place that could use some sound dampening surfaces.

I hope the restaurant, a good one, sees this. If only more owners knew they were losing business because of the noise pollution in their dining rooms!

We try to avoid disappointment by reading restaurant critics; that's why you folks make the big bucks. Usually the bad ones we are stuck with either cater to tourists or are trading on their reputation. In such circumstances, bread, wine and cheese are a perfect remedy, so we'll buy a supply for lunch the next day and tap into it in the evening if necessary. (My last trip to Alsace, I lost weight - that's a sin on par with leaving Vegas with extra money in your pocket.)

Love your on-the-road strategy. What a shame about Alsace! Thanks for the laugh.

Which cities in the US and the world have the top restaurants and where does Washington rank in these categories?

In the U.S., I'd have to say New York and Los Angelos, because of their size and immigrant populations, would be in any Top Five list, followed by Chicago, San Francisco and maybe Washington, Houston, Seattle or New Orleans?


Let me mull the international markets.


Meanwhile, I'd love to hear from chatters: What American cities would you put on your Top Five or Top 10 list?

Four Choices Girasole Restaurant in The Plains, VA Osteria 510, Front Royal, VA Ashby Inn, Paris, VA Apt 2G, Front Royal, VA

I've been to all of them over the years. I can't vouch for the Ashby Inn, which gained a new chef since my last dinner there, but I have fond memories of every time I've ever stepped inside the Italian-flavored Girasole, which therefore gets my vote.

It's strange because that same group's restaurants near Eastern Market--Acqua al 2 and the speakeasy Harold Black--are very quiet and relaxing. I don't know if places on 14th street feel like they need to have a "scene" but the din takes its toll.

Interesting point.

We're having a "soft opening" of a new Potbelly here in Vienna on the 19th of January. "All" proceeds (discounted price) will go to the James Madison High School PTSA. It's a way for the restaurant to get ready to open, train staff, and shake out the wrinkles without having to "dress up" as they would for a Grand Opening.

You just got free advertising. :)

Tom, is Ray's the Classics no longer a viable place for a quality steak at a good price with a delicious menu of other delights?

I haven't been recently (the past year), but I'm fielding enough complaints from customers who have eaten at Ray's, that I can't in good conscience recommend the restaurant, once a favorite of mine for good beef and red wine.

I'd have to add Miami as among my top five. I love the variety of foods and cuisines that's available in the city, along with the informal beach-side dining.

Miami? Interesting choice. I think the dining audience down there is a fickle one. And flash tends to trump class.

I vote for St. Louis..Better than New Orleans.

Because ..... ?

I want to take my husband out to a great steakhouse for his birthday. There's a special Napa Cab burning a hole in our wine rack that deserves a steakhouse meal to pair. Do you have a favorite steakhouse? Will any on your list let us bring our wine (with corkage I imagine)? Thanks!

My answer to your first question is the aforementioned Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, in CityCenterDC.


I don't have time during a live chat to call and ask, but I'm wagering the place will let you bring in your vino for a price. Hopefully, however, yours is a cabernet sauvignon that isn't on DFDE's list.

Free advertising was not my intent...but I'm sure Potbelly and the PTSA would appreciate the exposure. I'm just a JMHS parent.

I was just having a little fun there  ....

please take your signifcant other if you really care for him or her out on a different night. Like New Year's Eve, Mother's Day, and Easter Sunday these are all amateur nights ie folks who only go out fine dining establishments once a year come out and they dont ahve a clue. You get better quality food and service on the Feb 13th or Feb 15

Plus, restaurants would really appreciate the love. Valentine's Day this year falls -- unfortunately for the trade, if not diners --  on a Saturday. Saturdays are typically busy. 

Your review of Marcels left no doubt in my mind that I need to get over and try it. I love the idea of building your own tasting course menu. For a first visit, would you recommend that I go and sample the pre-theater menu before committing to a 5-course meal or should I jump in with both feet for one of the larger meals and not have the time constraints of a show?

Throw caution to the wind and ask for five courses, which is the way most regulars order at Marcel's, says the chef.

Recently, I've been pleased with what I've found in Philadelphia, Portland, Minneapolis, Dallas and Denver. I wouldn't put them in the top 5, but they're offering better than average options and you can find good and interesting food in all of these cities.

Yep. In the last few years, my most memorable meals have been in some of the smaller markets, Nashville included.

Our anniversary is tonight and we'd like to find a new spot for drinks, that's cozy, preferably with a fireplace. We've hit the usual suspects like Tabard Inn and Iron Gate. Any suggestions?

What about the fire pit at Bourbon Steak? (Congrats, by the way.)

For some reason lots of the better places were closed, even on nights when they were normally open. The places that were open seemed to have gotten their choucroute out of a bag. On the other hand, the wine more than made up for the disappointing food - our luggage clinked all the way home.

Love it (the wine sounds, not your lackluster meals).

Hey Tom, I finally made a reservation at Fiola Mare to celebrate my wife's birthday and have been looking forward to our dinner there, so I was sorry to see in your recent chat that their Executive Chef just left for the Oval Room. We do love Fiola and are seafood people, so it seemed like the perfect spot for us, but I wonder if we should keep our reservation? It is a special occasion and we don't get our as much as a we did before becoming parents, so I want to make sure our evening there is still worth the not insignificant price tag. Thanks!

Hold that reservation. It's one of the most coveted in town and owner Fabio Trabocchi wouldn't let a little thing like a departing chef disrupt his mega-hit in Georgetown. (He's got himself covered,in other words.)

So I guess I missed Bread Feast. Are they stopping that now that Ruta moved on?

DC proper and close in burbs maybe #50 since most DC area residents and food critics would know a good meal and a great dining experience if it bit them. DC just doesn't ahve great suppliers of beef, chicken, and pork. There is no real "Italian' in DC area and hasn't been for years but our restaurant critics think there is.

Wow, *someone* didn't have his double espresso this morning!  I beg to differ on the Italian comment and, well, basically ever word you typed.

Lyon! I found Lyon better than Paris. And Napoli better than Rome.

Oui! And si!

That's right, Mr. Congeniality! Most of us WOULD know a good meal and a great dining experience if it bit us. Thanks for letting your typo make the case!

Hahahahahahahah (not to be TOO juvenile, but) Hahahahahaha

I second your inclusion of The Crescent City on the list. I've been a half dozen times and never eaten in the same place twice. My recommendation to people is always "Walk around until you smell something good. Then go in and eat." That's usually followed by "After dinner, walk around until you hear something good. Then go in and listen." You really can't lose in that city.

Awesome advice. Thanks for sharing.

For international restaurants, some of my best meals have been in Lima, Buenos Aires, Sofia (Bulgaria - great blend of Greek and Turkish cuisine), Hanoi, London and Tokyo. I've been disappointed with my past couple trips to Paris. The high end restaurants there have been fantastic but the everyday bistro that was so good for so long seems to have declined in quality.

Oh so true about Paris. Love your travel schedule!

There are no decent Italian-American places. With a good Sunday gravy.

(Except if you get into my friend Will and Rachel's for Sunday dinner...)

I wish people would clarify if they mean Oregon or Maine when they say Portland. I can attest the east coast version has quite a good dining scene for such a small city... (the lobster roll at Eventide Oyster Co. will melt your brain)

I dig the scenes on both the East and the West Coast.

Friends from Sedona, AZ, are taking us to Nostos in Vienna (that's place in the wasteland between downtown DC and the Inn in Little Washington out west you don't visit often) next week. I stopped in to preview the place and found what I saw to be wonderful. My expectations for next week are really high. The menu took me back to Crete where I lived for 3 years. Very authentic. The owners and staff appear to be equally Greek. I'll write back with my experience. If it's good, I would hope you could manage a visit sometime.

Uh, been there, done that --- and loved the spot.


That's a wrap for today, folks. Please join me next week at 10 a.m. (not 11 a.m.!) for more food chat. Ciao!

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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