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

Jan 17, 2018

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.

Hi Tom. I seldom see you trash a restaurant (less than one star) but when you do its a cringeworthy read. I am curious, though. Have you ever set out to review a place and concluded quickly that its just so bad that its not even worth the (virtual) ink it would take to print it?

Sure. If it's small/out of the way/helmed by unkowns and otherwise of little consequence, I'm disinclined to review a bad performer. A rant on say, a lousy mom & pop in the surburbs is of little value to a general readership.

 

Good Wednesday morning, everyone. Tell me what's on your mind today, aside from staying warm.

Recently a guest that dined at a restaurant wrote a review on Yelp. That person called out "sexist service". I would like to remind everyone, that throwing out sexist, racist or any other remarks of such nature are not to be taken lightly. You are writing a "review" online, for the world to see and those allegations are serious. If you do actually receive sexist service, you should reach out directly to Managers/Ownership and get a lawyer involved. Opposed to nonchalantly publicly mentioning it online... thinking it's no big deal.

For better or worse, words carry weight, as in power. Thanks for reminding all of us to choose what we say carefully, online and elsewhere.

What do you think is a restaurant's responsibility if they forget an item (like a side or in some cases, an entire kid's meal) in a take-out order? This has happened several times to me at different places and when I call, they apologize and either offer to refund me the cost of that item or I can drive back to pick it up. I usually end up driving back but it annoys me greatly that with their mistake, I need to take additional time to fix it. Do you think if a restaurant forgets an item in a take-out order, they should do something more than have the person drive back to get it?

Slips happen. Are you suggesting the restaurant in question take responsibility for the missing parts and deliver them to you? (I think a refund is plenty fair, provided the restaurant is close to you.)

Hi Tom- I visited NYC last week and used your recommendations from your article this past November to make dinner plans. I went to both Empellon (Midtown) and ABCV. As a carnivore, I thought I would like the former more, but oh man, was ABCV great! Never knew all-vegetarian could be so good, especially their shiitake dish and spinach spaghetti! Would be very cool to see a concept like ABCV rise to more prominence in the District. Thanks for the great reviews as always!

I'm thrilled my recommendations for New York worked out well for you. Count me a big fan of ABCV's lettuce cups filled with creamy avocado, crisp pepitas, the sting of serrano and the brightness of lime.

 

Regarding your wish for better meatless menus in Washington, have you heard the update about the 60-seat restaurant poised to open on H St. NE next month?  Fancy Radish comes courtesy of the owners of the esteemed Vedge in Philadelphia.

When there's only one or two restaurant reviews online that are wildly negative compared to the rest, I chalk them up to more likely reflecting adversely on the reviewer than the restaurant.

Me too.

Hi Tom, My wife and I recently purchased a home in the DC (Brightwood) and we’ve been on a budget while we fix it up. We love dining out and value these special occasions together. We haven’t been able to find many places that provide the right atmosphere for a romantic night out without breaking the bank. Any recommendations while we’re dining on a budget?

Have you heard about Rasa, the new fast-casual Indian eatery in the Navy Yard?  The DIY bowls, priced between $9 and $12, are delicious and the arty setting practically begs you to eat your meal there rather than take it away. Rasa even serves alcohol, including a gin & tonic made with fresh-ground spices and local gin.

Tom - do you or the chatters have any restaurant recommendations for Richmond? My friends recently moved there and I want to congratulate them with a gift card to a casual restaurant. They love all types of food. Thanks.....love the chats!

Here's my most recent dispatch from Virginia's capital, along with the suggestion of  the Alpine-inspired Brenner Pass, which comes highly recommended by food friends. 

Tom - Just a big thanks to you for your dining guide and chat. My sister and I just had a girls weekend in Georgetown. We are both out of towners and DC was a good meet point. Looking for good food, we consulted your dining guide. Our Brunch at Fiola Mare was fantastic - the food, the view were great but the service was superb. Our waitress was attentive, and answered our all of our questions with smiling grace. And we also tried dinner at Bindaas - great food!! and great service - and a great end to a wonderful weekend. Just wanted to Thank you for shining a light on two great establishments that made our weekend special.

So glad I was of help to you. Thanks for the feedback on both restaurants, each special in its own way. 

Three of us are coming to DC next week and would like to find a good authentic Italian restaurant in the downtown area that is not too expensive but of high quality. What would you recommend? Thanks.

Bibiana just re-opened downtown after a facelift that includes a new chef in the kitchen. On the menu: beef short ribs with polenta, seafood stew and pan-fried potato gnocchi. The (non-pasta) main courses average $30. 

Tom, Big fan of your posts. They're the only thing standing between me and a lack of foodie knowledge! You also helped me pick a place for my 30th birthday last year, so thanks for that. My question is this: Is it appropriate to criticize a restaurant's menu format? I ask because last night, I went with several friends for a friend's birthday dinner at Beuchert's Saloon in SE. Previously, the menu format was essentially a standard apps, meals, desserts kind of format. When my friend booked it for us, a about 4 days ago, it still was. But several days ago, they completely changed it. Now it's hard to describe it other than to describe it as a series of slightly bigger small plates. Worst of all, it was clear the waiters were not heavily trained with the new menu. Every time a member of my table asked, "how big is this"?, it seemed as if the waiter needed to wax philosophical about what a person thought was sufficient. "It's bigger than a small plate, but it's not really a full meal, it's kind of like mezze?" Even better still, it seemed to stilt the service. We were told what order we should ask for our food in, which was extraordinarily condescending. And we ended up having to order items just so that someone wouldn't be "left out" of a round of eating. And it seemed to take nearly forever to get our food. Nearly every food item took a half hour or more. All of this boiled down to, "Why did they change the menu that people seemed to like? How did they think this was a good value? And shouldn't you have prepped your waiters (and customers, who were not informed of the menu change after their reservation) for such a big change? If you read this far, Tom, you deserve a treat! Thanks for being the one food critic I feel like I can actually talk to, you're a highlight of my week! - Kevin D.

I read to the end, Mr. D!  I'd welcome a response from the restaurant; let this serve as a request for the chef or an owner to explain the recent menu changes. (I'm all for medium plates, but servers really need to know what they're talking about.) 

 

And while we're on the subject of annoying lists, what do you think of a menu that's laid out backwards? That's the case at the new Brothers and Sisters in the Line hotel, the subject of this Sunday's review in the Magazine.

On a recent vacation, I went to Empellon in NYC based on your suggestion. Boy was it a disappointment, the food was not good and didn't show much value for the expense. The queso with steak tartare, couldn't taste the mild steak thru the rich cheese. The fish taco was just fish and a tiny bit of slaw. It needed more slaw and more sauces. For $17 it was laughable small. The chicken was also a joke for the price and size. Four pieces of chicken for like $30+ dollars. The sable was booring and also rediculously small for the price. Finally the pork belly was a beautiful plate and uniquely presented but I could only taste salt so we sent it back. The staff didn't really do or offer anything to make up for this mishap other than ask if we wanted to order something else. Place was overpriced, undervalued and didn't taste good. I went to wonderful places in NYC (uncle boons, Marea, sushi azabu) that were light years better in service and food. Don't go here.

It sounds like we went to different restaurants. I've been to Empellon twice now, each meal as an unknown diner, and I've experienced consistently great food and service (even as a solo act at the bar one late lunch). I've also sent dozens of readers there, all of whom have reported good times. (See the post, above.) Maybe you hit Empellon on an off night? 

I would LOVE to see a lot more negativity in online reviews. The percentage of restaurants with 4 or five stars that are mediocre or outright lousy must top 90. Even approaching sites like Yelp with the greatest cynicism, I occasionally find myself turning to them and trying to read between the lines to get a real feel for what I might be in for. Review sites are filled with big wet kisses from people who have no idea what good food and service are. Restaurateurs who complain about them are spoiled brats.

"Wet kisses," as you refer to raves, are as unhelpful as rants if they're not supported by sufficient detail (and  a dollop of fairness). It's one thing to complain about a bad server or a poor dish, quite another to call out an establishment for say, discrimination.

Just a thank-you for your recommendations of 701 restaurant as a dining destination. A friend treated me to a birthday dinner there recently, and the food was delicious. What I particularly appreciated, though, was the space between tables. The services was also excellent - attentive without being obtrusive; this is a staff that can actually read a table. Definitely a good choice for a lovely experience - thanks!

The modern American 701 is good to know about for a lot of reasons, not all of them food-related, as you just pointed out. Thanks for the feedback. Readers are my eyes and ears. 

The chatter says that staff didn't do anything or offer anything to make up for the salty pork belly that was sent back, but the server apparently asked if they wanted to order anything else? If they weren't charged for the pork belly, it seems like the restaurant was accommodating.

Yep.

Is there a reason that the writer, who presumably is picking up the takeout orders, isn't checking the bag of food before leaving the restaurant? This would obviate anyone driving back and forth to replace the missing items...

Now why didn't *I* think to offer that pearl of wisdom?

Ive had Cosme and it was great. Others have said they prefer it to Empellon. tom, in NYC did you get to try cosme? I think youd like it.

I had a seriously underwhelming dinner there with two other critics a couple years ago, following a three-star rave in the Times. I'd like to try Cosme  again, though.

Don't get me wrong. I am single/divorced/older and have a great life with lots of friends to do things with. But once in a while, I find myself with a free early evening that I would just like to go to a bar/restaurant, sit at the bar -- order a wine or a mixed drink and an appetizer, and chit-chat with others at the bar. What I would like is others at the bar that are over 50 or even over 60, good wine and interesting appetizers (not just fried somethings) and music (not hip hop, not so loud I have no idea what anyone is saying). Is there hope? Do you have some up your sleeve that you could recommend? Good locations would include Capitol Hill.

It's been years since I've dropped in, but the long-running Monocle on the Hill, a destination for lawmakers, might be an option. You might also consider the counter at Joselito for Spanish small plates. Closer to downtown, on or around Pennsylvania Ave., there are the relatively mature bars at the Source, 701 and Capital Grille steakhouse. Any chatters care to chime in?

Hi Tom - You often recommend the newest place you've visited, but do you have any updates on Del Campo, Red Hen or Doi Moi? Each were once shiny and new - are they still interesting?

I remain a fan of Del Campo, where I've even in the past six months. But a recent dinner at Doi Moi was a disappointment. There was nothing I cared to return for; the kitchen seemed to be on auto-pilot.

We went to the Line last week for a staycation, and while I did think the layout of the menu was strange -actually my first thought was they put it together mistakenly and was about to re-order it for them when the server informed us back to front. A little strange, but I forgive them since their food was pretty delicious, even after we had a full dinner upstairs. The oyster with the uni on top was so good, we had to order a second round. I applaud the effort to stand out with the menu, but their food was good enough that I didn't need a menu gimmick to get my attention.

My thoughts exactly. Did you try any of the desserts at Brothers and Sisters? It's a treat to explore Pichet Ong's handiwork.

My husband and I don’t normally go out on Valentine’s Day but thought we’d change it up this year. Any recommendations? I was thinking Requiem at the new wharf?

I don't want to throw cold water on your plans, but I encourage you to book your special meal on other than Valentine's Day, when restaurants tend to charge more and dining rooms tend to be crowded with inexperienced diners. Try the day before or after, for instance.  (Requin in the Wharf would be a nice landing pad, as would the beguiling new Chloe from Haidar Karpum in the Navy Yard, the subject of next Wednesday's First Bite.

I know that restaurants operate on a slim profit margin. It seems to me that if the restaurant can address a few minor issues by making simple changes to the atmosphere, service, or menu selection, they could improve their business. Do you ever wish you could just walk up to the manager and have a 20 minute conversation about things they could change that would make a big difference in your review? Better lighting, different or softer music, minor changes to the menu?

Given that I already have this forum and several places in the paper to address readers and restaurants alike, I'm sometimes reluctant to bring up issues when I'm dining out. That said,  I've been known to complain about dim lighting (most recently at Brothers and Sisters) or untidy restrooms (at Del Mar) when I think the restaurants can change something easily or quickly for the benefit of other customers. 

Will you be dining at O'Naturel in Paris anytime soon?

Negative!

Hi, Tom! I'm meeting a friend near Gallery Place tomorrow evening. She's unable to join me for dinner, so I'm looking for suggestions for an early solo dinner. I'm open on cuisine and would like to keep dinner to less than $25 (no drinks). Thanks for the tips!

I'd belly up to the bar at either Jaleo or Zaytinya.

Nooooo....!!!! Some of our worst romantic-dinner-out-at-fine-dining places were V-Day until we learned to just stay home, or go out on the 13th or the 15th.

Thanks for the show of support.

Do you have any blind spots in your food appreciation? I don't care for raw tomatoes (I know, I know) so I would steer away from dishes that feature them. Do you steer away from any dishes based upon your preferences? Consider reviews from other trusted diners with you? How does a food critic reconcile with his own taste buds? I'm a big fan, BTW--this is a curiosity not a criticism!

Lots of questions and we're running out of time, but briefly, I'm not a fan of black licorice (or ingredients that taste like it) or sunchokes, which I'm seeing way too much of lately. Yes, I listen to trusted dining companions, but in the end, my name is on the review and I take responsibility for the opinions/writing/evaluation.

Politico.com has a nice podcast and summary online today with Maria Trabocchi, who with her chef/husband heads Sfoglina, Fiola, Fiola Mare and Casa Luca (and, most recently, Del Mar). Among other things she says "the secret to charming the VIPs of the nation’s capital...[is] treating them as if they were just like any other guest." Good advice. https://www.politico.com/story/2018/01/17/maria-trabocchi-restaurant-industry-women-rule-342723

Agreed!

First and foremost, I am an avid follower of this forum, and respect your input immensely. I am curious of your on your take on the ever increasing trend of comfort food vs haute food. Thousands of restaurants open each day across the country with groundbreaking concepts on how to prepare food. From places like Next, and Noma to Mini Bar that take culinary delights to levels that few of us can afford. Then you have places like Waffle House that happen to be the go to for chefs, have survived the test of time. Then you there are middle ground restaurants that offer fast casual, like CHIKO. In your opinion, what type of restaurants to you like seeing more of in the District?

That's easy: GOOD ones, regardless of their cuisine or price point or location. (Seriously, though, I'm all about more moderately-priced neighborhood spots and restaurants specializing in less-common cuisines, including German and West African, among other flavors.)

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Please join me next Wednesday for another hour of restaurant chat. Thanks for the good questions and comments.

 

P.S. Confidential to the Marcel's reservation holder who was contacted by Open Table rather than restaurant and hoped to be accomodated. Reach out to me at tom.sietsema@washpost.com and I'll connect you.

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Tom Sietsema has been the Washington Post food critic since 2000. In leaner years, he worked for the Microsoft Corporation, where he launched sidewalk.com; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; the San Francisco Chronicle; and the Milwaukee Journal. A graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, he has also written for Food & Wine, Gourmet, GQ, Travel & Leisure and other national publications. In 2016, he received an award from the James Beard Foundation for his series identifying and rating the "10 Best Food Cities in America" the previous year.
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