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

Jan 30, 2019

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, Curious to know what led you to include the noise levels of the restaurants you dine at in your restaurant reviews. I can only speak for myself, but I find that to be a hugely helpful inclusion, and I do appreciate you for that. Can you think of an example where the noise level drastically altered your experience at an otherwise enjoyable restaurant? Thanks!

Ten years ago or so, I started getting lots of complaints from diners. They couldn’t talk in restaurants anymore. Sure enough, I did some research on noise, bought a sound meter and started recording what was happening in restaurants around Washington.

 

It wasn’t very appetizing. Some of the best-known places in the city at the time were serving food in settings with the noise equivalents of garbage disposals (80 decibels) and lawn mowers (90). For the sake of comparison, 60 decibels is normal conversation. I ended up doing a cover story for the Sunday Magazine and introduced sound checks along with my star ratings.


Readers must tire of it, but I'm *still* railing against noise pollution.  In fact, I recently did an interview on Here & Now (NPR) to discuss the state of affairs. And I actually wrote in a preview that I wouldn't return to Pisco y Nazca, unless the Peruvian newcomer did something to combat the din, which measured an ear-splitting 100 decibels -- the equivalent of a jet engine at take off.

 

NEW, IN NORTH BETHESDA: The subject of my Sunday Magazine review is the beguiling Julii, from the DC-based Cava Group.  I love the look of the place, a glass box set in a little park at the Pike & Rose development, and you have to stick around for dessert, if only to hear the chef, Sasha Felikson, sing when he brings out his ice cream cart.

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone, and thanks for joining me for another hour or so of restaurant talk. Fire away.

 

Hi Tom! On January 19th I was given a giftcard to Garrison - on their last night of service before closing permanently! Do I have any recourse for getting a refund or having it honored in some other way? It is for a non-trivial amount, and unfortunately their website is offline so there is no way to contact anyone associated with the restaurant. Thank you!

What unfortunate timing. When, exactly, was your certificate purchased for you?  

 

Alas, a closed restaurant can't suddenly open for you. The only positive outcome is if the chef-owner transitions to another establishment and either he or his employer agree to honor your certificate.

Hi Tom, My husband and I are going to see something at the Wharf next week and we'd like to eat dinner beforehand. I know you've made a lot of great suggestions for that area, but are there any places you'd suggest with vegan options?

Eating vegan is tough on the Wharf, although a few specific dishes come to mind, such as the green curry with coconut milk at Kaliwa, the jicama-mango salad with tamarind dressing at Mi Vida and the paccheri with cauliflower and raisins -- hold the pecorino, of course -- at Officina.  I wish I could be of more help.

Since you were kind enough to post my question, I wanted to let you know that we took our 6 year old to Sfoglina and it was great. We ate one the early side (5:30) and were seated by the window to the kitchen. The staff was lovely and my son pronounced it the best pasta he's ever had.

If mom and dad and son are happy, so are Sfoglina and Sietsema. Grazie for the feedback.

This is a half -jokey suggestion: Do you think some of these amazing new restaurants with great food would occasionally have no music, lights up evenings? It’s a shame that talking to your neighbor and being able to read the menu are sacrificed for a chance to try out great food. Appealing only to the younger crowd who can cope with such terrain means the more senior dollar is being dismissed. As I say, just a jokey solution to my reluctance to return to El Sapo - superlative food, couldn’t hear a damn thing. I thought of calling them “senior evenings” but I’m sure a less off putting title could be found. Or I could just go to dinner at 4pm and be in bed by 7pm. Sigh. PS Do appreciate the decibel levels in the reviews - thanks! Posted by “justturned50andfeelingit”.

El Sapo is indeed a noise bomb: 85 decibels translates to "extremely loud."  A national critic invited me there just last night, and I have to say, as eager as I am for the modern Cuban restaurant to get the wide publicity it deserves, my ears were happy to hear that the restaurant closed ahead of the snowstorm we didn't get.

 

I *love* your idea, but for it to be a success, restaurants will want to see a full house and people have to have advance notice. Any restaurant care to give the notion a whirl? Raise your hand. 

I wanted to relay our experience at Whaley's/Fuyu Sunday night. We had made reservations a couple of weeks in advance to celebrate two birthdays (one a 50th) and an anniversary. We had reservations for 7p (being a Sunday night we were concerned about being out too late, plus we were coming from Bethesda & Northern Virginia) and arrived at least 5 minutes before 7. We were told that the table we had reserved was being occupied by campers, and that it would be at least half an hour. We decamped to the bar (although we're largely non-drinkers) and were comped drinks and a little plate of oysters (I think we ordered 4). The staff did their best to keep us informed, and did check up on us frequently. After about 30-40 minutes or so the other party left and we got to the table by about 745p. Not the biggest deal, but we were surprised that the restaurant only had one table that could fit a party of 6! We were pretty hungry at this point (we had ordered a seafood tower in advance so we could get things moving.) and put our orders in forthwith. We ordered the shabu-shabu, and the food came out in a timely manner, and tasted good...the little bit that were there. We were really disappointed with the amount of protein per order; shabu-shabu is either a 2 person or 4 person dish. We ordered a pair of 2-person entrees; what came was really laughable. My wife and I ordered the rib eye, tune and scallops. We got maybe 6 small pieces of meat, what looked like 2-3 scallops sliced thin, and make a couple of ounces of tuna. By the time the cooking was done and the noodle soup was passed around, we were all still very hungry. All in all I don't think we'd return. For the money charged I just don't think diners should leave hungry. To recap - service was a good as could be expected but the reservation was not honored on time. And the amount of food was very small for the price charged. Not looking to be comped or anything, just wanted to relay our experience.

I'm disappointed to read this, because it was on the restaurant to make up for your 45 minute (!) wait. ("Campers" shouldn't be accommodated. Just saying. ) It sounds like Fuyu took care of some drinks and a starter, but someone should have advised you to order more food at the beginnning, or sent out more shabu-shabu -- gratis would have been née, given the circumstances -- when they saw you running low. 

Hi Tom, Wanted to give a major shout out to O-Ku for their hospitality Tuesday night.... I took a friend for her birthday but didn’t flag it for the restaurant. Our awesome and perceptive waiter Juan Carlo noticed me pass a card to my friend and asked if it was her birthday. At the end of the meal they surprised her with a dessert on the house as well as champagne for us both. They also gave her a small card signed by the staff! Considering how many readers complain about making a point that they are celebrating a big event and don’t get acknowledged when out - I would say that O-Ku really went above and beyond for us. I think your review on the food was spot on but the service plus the delicious grilled dishes make it well worth the trip!

Glad to hear O-Ku went the extra mile, and that you enjoyed the food, too. Since my review, the opening chef, Bryan Emperor, decamped for Las Vegas. 

At one of our favorite wine bars, the staff regularly bring us tastes of something we've asked about, or occasionally full glasses of something they suggested we needed to try on the house. They're generous almost to a fault - at a recent visit, we had a tasting flight of sherries and 2.5 glasses of wine, plus a few other small tastes, yet when our bill arrived, it only had 1.5 glasses of wine on it. Normally, we'd tip generously to account for the freebies, but they recently implemented a flat 20% service charge model. We do always leave positive feedback on the in-house comment cards and have posted positive online reviews, but it doesn't feel like enough. What's the appropriate thing to do in this situation?

I'd be inclined to leave an extra $10 or $20 once a month or so and give it to whomever you see most, in an envelope with a short note: "Thanks for always taking care of us."

 

 Alternatively, you could split, say, $20 between two servers (again, tucked inside an envelope with a message of appreciation).

 

I would hate the constant trying to figure out the "right" tip!

With Mardi Gras coming up in a month or so, where can one find good gumbo in the DC area? Thanks.

Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan makes probably the best bowl in the city. Ten bucks buys you enormous pleasure.

What do you think of the idea of "Mellow Mondays", or since many restaurants close on Mondays, "Toned-down Tuesdays"? I'm not retired yet, but when I am I plan to go out to eat more on weeknights to take advantage of the thinner crowds. It could increase traffic on normally slow nights, so win/win!

I like the way you think -- not to mention the alliteration; good for you for dining earlier in the week, rather than later.

Above, you say that campers should not be accommodated, but I am wondering how you propose that restaurant staff deal with campers? Even at my most diplomatic, it is hard to imagine a phrasing that won't offend/annoy.

Well, for starters, Fuyu shouldn't have seated the group at a six-top (if indeed that was the case) without letting them know they needed it back before 7 p.m.

 

Possible plea: "'I'm so sorry, but we only have one table large enough to accommodate six people and they're here for their 7 p.m. reservation. If you're not ready to wrap up yet, could we buy you (drinks/dessert/coffee) at the bar?"

Hi Tom, My family is coming to visit me over Easter Weekend. It will be a larger party, more on the side of 8 to 10 people. Any recommendations for where I should take them? My dad loves Blue Duck Tavern, but wanted to get your opinion on another option. Open to anywhere within DC and price point. Thanks so much!

Blue Duck Tavern is a good call, but so would be the less formal Buck's Fishing & Camping (I love the long communal table there); Momofuku (where I recently treated a group of seven, in the main dining room); or Centrolina (the beloved Italian retreat with a private space). 

Tom - Besides the Inn (too expensive) and Three Blacksmiths, what other places are you recommending these days for a nice meal an hour or so away from DC? We were planning for a one-night get away and I know there were several places in Virginia you’ve recommended in the past. Maryland recs are fine too (Charleston is on the list). Thanks!

This Baltimore fan likes your Charleston idea. And what about Richmond? It's been a few years since I dined there, but I'm hearing good things about Brenner Pass and Longoven in particular. 

Germantown's one of the largest (population-wide) communities in the area, but I never see any reviews of restaurants up here; are we too rural or hick for you?

Not at all. Tell me where I need to go, or what you'd like to see reviewed there. (I've said this before, but my mission has changed slightly in the last few years. The Post is branding itself as a national media entity and as such, I'm inclined to review restaurants of interest to a larger readership. There are exceptions, of course, and I'll continue to review good food wherever it pops up -- Germantown, included.)

Hey Tom, wondering if you have been back to Spoken English. I went with a small group of friends a couple of weeks ago. We remarked that we an absolute great time. The energy was great, the chefs were friendly, our server was funny and learned. We very much enjoyed our conversation and his attentiveness. We shall return!

I'm eager to go back there, too. I didn't think standing up for dinner would be much fun, but the food and company -- strangers who end up exchanging food, and sometimes numbers -- make up for the situation.

Hey Tom! Do you know of any places that serve heart-shaped pizzas for Valentine's Day? My google searches are thus far unsuccessful. Eat-in, take out, doesn't matter. Thanks for your help!

Anyone know of a good pizzeria that does heart shapes? 

Thanks to the OP for saving me the time and disappointment. Notwithstanding the wait, shabu shabu is supposed to include a good bit of food

I wonder if the kitchen still sends out udon to cook in the remaining broth. The noodles are pretty filling.

Hi Tom- we recently ate at Bastille in Alexandria for Restaurant Week. The food was great, as it usually, but the service was horrendous. We waited 25 minutes for a waiter to take our order. There was some drama with the check at the next table which resulted in the manager (unclear her role) shouting at the patrons as she explained the issues. The meal lasted almost two hours- which seemed long. I almost left waiting so long for someone to take our order. What do you think we should have done? I understant Restuarant Week is busy, but after my experience I am not sure I'd go back.

Unless there's a fire or other emergency, a manager should never shout in a restaurant -- especially at customers. I mean, what was she thinking? No one would overhear?

Hey Tom! My partner and I are planning weeklong trip to DC in March. I'm making a beeline for Le Diplomate, which I've been reading about in your chat forever and can't wait to try! Here's my question: We are both big fans of Greek food, but the only recommendation I could find from you is Komi, which is out of our price range. Do you or the chatters know of a good Greek place for around $30/person before drinks? We're staying in Fairfax but will spend most of our time doing touristy stuff in the city, so location is flexible.

In the city, try Zaytinya, the airy mezze master within walking distance of many famous DC landmarks, and in Northern Virginia, I admire Nostos in Vienna, about an eight-minute drive from Fairfax (depending on where you're staying, of course). 

Hi Tom: I know that Bethesda is kind of a wasteland in terms of quality food, but we need to find a place that is open for lunch/brunch at 11/11:30 (so no Raku) on a Sunday in Bethesda, near the Imagination Stage. And it can't have a set menu (so no Duck Duck Goose) and must have items like plain pasta and grilled chicken or plain rice and grilled chicken to meet the medical needs of one of the party. And one of the 5 of us is a 5-year-old. I've done a fair amount of research, but most of the reviews seem to be several years old, and some of the chefs have changed -- and has anything new and interesting opened? I'm seriously stumped! Any reasonable price point is ok (eg, Urban Butcher's $45/pp is pretty much the max), the location is important, the menu options are paramount. Help! And thanks in advance!

That's a *lot* of requirements there!  I'm wondering if the high-energy True Food Kitchen can help.  The restaurant  opens early (10 a.m. on weekends) and the mindful menu includes chicken in several guises. I'd call ahead to be certain the restaurant fits your needs. Good luck. 

Hi Tom, Got any recommendations for Palm Springs, CA?

Friends who live there seem to like the Mediterranean-themed Evzin in the Caliente Tropics Resort and the rooftop of the new Rowan hotel for cocktails and valley views.

Hi Tom, I lived in DC, but moved away 10 years ago. I'll be back this weekend for a single night and would like a recommendation for a restaurant that best illustrates the change in the DC restaurant scene over the last 10 years. Not picky about style or type of food. Thanks, and still enjoy reading your review and chats, even from out here in the Rocky Mountains!

Thanks for continuing to follow me. Much obliged. It's a serious challenge to identify a single game-changing restaurant in Washington, but I think you'll be especially surprised by the variety of Asian restaurants -- Himitsu, Maketto, Bad Saint, among others -- and the increase in small personal dining statements, such as Elle, Chloe, Tail Up Goat, sometimes in "new" food neighborhoods (as in Shaw, the Navy Yard, the Wharf and elsewhere).

Tom, I am craving a New England style clam roll — fried clams with tartar sauce and pickles on brioche. Who makes s great one in this area? I see lots of lobster tolls and oyster poboys, which are good but just don’t hit the spot. Thanks for the wicked weekly chats!

I checked in with the usual suspects -- Hank's Oyster Bar, Joe's and Legal Sea Foods --- but all I'm finding are fried clam starters or  dinners, not rolls. Maybe a chatter can come to your aid before the hour is up. 

Hi Tom, Long time reader of your chats, I always appreciate your DC dining insights. I just want to share a rave of Little Serow; I know it's a well-known spot, but I still think it deserves my praise while it's fresh on my mind. I've been twice this month (including today for this week's special chicken menu) and am always so impressed by both the food and the service. My server both times this month, Sara, was very knowledgable and attentive and even remembered the wine I was considering the last time I was there. Water glasses are filled quickly and you never feel rushed. The food is like no other Thai food in DC and very reasonably priced for the amount and quality. All-in-all, bravo Little Serow, I'm happy to have it in the neighborhood and know it will always be a fantastic meal.

The neighbor to Komi, which is also owned by chef Johnny Monis, is indeed a special experience, so much so that I featured the Thai charmer in my inaugural hall of fame. 

Because of mobility issues, we find that many of the places you review are impossible to access - no parking (and definitely no valet), stairs with no handrails to enter the place even if there is an elevator in the back by the dishwasher. That means that restaurants not in strip malls in the 'burbs are something that we can't ever try. If we call, staff doesn't always seem to understand what we are asking. Might you be able to add to the review something about accessibility?

It's something I've thought about, and would like to include, but also wonder how much reporting I'd have to do, and how discretely I could say, measure doors, etc.

My dear friend is struggling with early stage dementia, so we are looking for ease of access (no long walks from the curb, no stairs), friendly yet not loud or too fast, service delivered with care rather than speed or flair. What places come to mind?

So sorry about your friend. On the high end, there's Marcel's in the West End, which has some of the best service anywhere; on the moderate side, there's the aforementioned Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan.

I recently traveled to Marfa, Texas, which is hoppin' with restaurants and foodie experiences. Most places have open kitchens. At one restaurant, I walked past on my way to another table, and quickly said "thanks, how wonderful," etc. I'm now thinking this might have been rude and interruptive. Thoughts?

Really? I'm thinking you made some cook's day! We're all plants that need a little watering, right?

Living by Mount Vernon our usual nights out take us to Alexandria. I was heartened to see your mention of the Evening Star Cafe in a recent column. I was beginning to wonder if you had an aversion to Alexandria, or if its just that the restaurants aren't up to snuff. Besides Nasime, are there any places there to keep an eye on?

I'm very excited to try the new Urbano 116, with Mexican food from one of Mexico City's best-known chefs, Alam Méndez . Lucky Old Town!

Barrel & Crow is just a block from Imagination Stage. Still solid food.

Thanks for chiming in.

Tom, went out to one of the restaurants that is always in the top 20 recently and of course was very busy (but not full). While being seated right near a giant window with no heat coming through the air vents supposedly to keep this area warm, and other more interior tables in the restaurant away from the windows not occupied, we did ask the server could we possibly move to a more interior table and was greeted with an "I'm sorry, but we are full at the moment." In my mind, if someone is not in the restaurant and eating at a table, they shouldn't have a particular table pre-assigned to them that just sits empty while there are other customers in the restaurant who are actually there and eating. Thanks for letting us vent.

Unless a regular requested the unoccupied table, you should have been re-seated (or handed a pashmina shawl, at a minimum).

We once had dinner at a place so noisy that it gave me a major headache, which understandably spoiled the meal for me.

I know that feeling! Some of the worst offenders at the moment are some of my otherwise favorite restaurants: the Dabney (80), Elle (84 decibels) and Le Diplomate (also 84)

Why is McLean such a desert for good restaurants, I've lived here for 30 yrs and with the except of a few tries, there have been no quality ones.

Have you tried the tiny, quirky Chiang Mai for Thai? It's new and fun and run by a husband and wife who informed me they didn't want a review because they were too small.

For a variety of reasons, it is not always possible to seat someone at a table just because it is empty! I run into this a lot. It might be reserved for a regular, but more likely that whatever table you are bringing them to is needed back (due to size, normally) OR if you seat them elsewhere you have now overwhelmed the server for that section.

Thanks for the industry perspective. (But still. Do something about drafts and chilly spots!)

Hello! For anyone with allergies, just wanted to say that my friend and I had a really great restaurant week dinner at Convivial- I emailed in advance asking if they could accommodate us, and the chef himself brought out a personal menu and checked on us throughout the night. It was so much fun and such a relief for her to be able to enjoy herself (and the food was great- especially the skate wing!).

Take a bow, Cedric Maupillier. (He's one of Washington's most talented chefs. Count me a fan of his clever food at his French-American retreat.)

More and more, dim lighting and small print (especially with wine lists - I'm looking at you St Anselm) make it hard to read. And pulling out your phone's flashlight isn't want you want to be doing on a date or business dinner. I'm in my late 30's, so this isn't some baby boomer request! Thank you.

Catch that, restaurants (and menu writers and designers)? LET THERE BE LIGHT.

 

Hey, it's noon. Time to go to work: lunch! Let's meet again next Wednesday, same time. Stay warm out there.

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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