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

Jan 31, 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'm a faithful reader in Tampa. I was wondering what you think about our restaurant critic deciding to out herself. Is this a trend? http://bit.ly/2EksKxn

It sure feels like it, what with the critics at the  Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Dallas Morning News and New York magazine "coming out" in recent years. (And now, the reviewer for the Tampa Bay Times.)

 

I get the argument -- a lot of restaurants know what the critics look like/being liberated from anonymity allows for more behind-the-scenes access -- but for the time being, I think the element of surprise is still a useful tool in my arsenal. It's hard to find a recent good photograph of me -- online at least -- and I like that.

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me today. Let's start out with some news you can use.  The owner of Marcel's informs me the haute French restaurant is reopening for dinner Feb. 1 and the chef behind Unconventional Diner says the breakfast/lunch part of the restaurant starts today. 

 

On a less joyful note, I got an email from Sherman Outhuok of Thally, who writes he's selling the restaurant: "The last day of operation will be this Saturday the 4th.  My business partner and I have decided to dissolve our partnership and selling is the best option."  Outhuok adds that he's exploring options for another concept.

 

Bring on your questions and comments.

What questions do you wish people would stop asking? What questions should people ask you more often?

  1) "I'm going to (insert name of restaurant I've recently reviewed) . What should I get?" (Yes, I'm talking to you Todd.)

 

 2)  Readers frequently complain about a place without backing up their post with details. If the service is poor, show me with examples; if the food is bad, what made it so?

 

In last week's chat, in discussing Marcus, you stated "The restaurant wasn't very good." However, it received a one star review. One star is defined in the Post as "satisfactory". I don't equate "satisfactory" and "not very good". If "not very good" was your evaluation, why didn't it receive a 1/2 star; i.e. between "poor" and "satisfactory"? This is not a commentary on the review itself; I never went to Marcus.

I was going off my memory when I saw the post about the demise of Marcus and simply recall the experience as nothing special, with the exception of a few dishes. "Satisfactory" sort of sums up the sentiment.

A lot of people have commented that they're upset about being asked to give up their table at a restaurant. I just wanted to offer industry perspective on this. If you have an earlier reservation (6:30 or before), the restaurant typically takes another reservation for two hours later. It's standard a fairly standard timeframe. That being said, if you want to linger, just let someone know when you arrive/make the reservation. Any host/management team will have no problem accommodating you. However, if you're doing a bottomless option with a time limit (like at brunch), be prepared to give up your table when the time limit ends and please don't make us ask, it makes us unhappy too.

Two hours sounds like a generous amount of time for a table for two in a restaurant. While I agree that diners should let their wishes be known when they arrive, I can see occasions when a restaurant might not be able to accommodate lingering (busy Saturday night, holidays, etc.)

I wonder if the poster from last week saying that Casa Luca was underwhelming went at lunch. I also work nearby, and have had some good, but not amazing, lunches at Casa Luca, when the place seems to be running a bit more on autopilot in the kitchen and in front (and the thought of a decadent Italian meal is not as alluring). For dinner, however, I have had a couple truly superlative meals with service that went above and beyond.

My last meal at Casa Luca was at night -- and superb.

Consistency is one of the hardest details for a business to nail; I'm unable to explain the qualitative difference between lunch and dinner without knowing if there's a change of chefs or some such at the restaurant.

No hotels, please -- could you or your readers recommend a nice Downtown restaurant for an award dinner (130+ people)? The catch: We need a venue that allows everyone to see the award ceremony so a location in which we're in different rooms won't work.

I assume you're willing to buy out the restaurant and suggest you start with venues including Central Michel Richard, Fiola, Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab and the new Rare Steak and Seafood on I St. NW.

You probably don't read DC Urban Mom (why would you, you are not a parent), but there is a whole thread about how terrible you are http://www.dcurbanmom.com/jforum/posts/list/699666.page (if you are interested) My question is not about that, but in general, being in the semi public eye, does negative press bother you, or do you just take it as something that comes with your (very cool) job.

I have pretty tough skin. I can handle the negative comments, and they come with the territory (you don't go into this profession to win friends, that's for sure).

 

The only thing that bothers me is when commenters are totally off-base with the (alternative?) facts.  I have no "long-standing feuds," for instance, with anyone that I know of.  Now and then, I'm tempted to reach out to the deplorables -- I'm kidding! I'm KIDDING! --  but then, I have several forums in which to say what I want to say about my beat.

Heading there next month after 10 years away. Looking for recommendations, from high-end to dusty boots.

Santa Fe is one of my favorite American destinations. In addition to Restaurant Martin for fine dining and The Shed for tangy margaritas and red sauce made from local chilies, make time for lunch at Rancho de Chimaya, 25 miles north of the city, for tamales, tacos, huevos rancheros, enchiladas, chiles rellenos and carne asada in a handsome 19th century hacienda.  And by all means, make time for Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-style spa, and the Georgia O'Keeffe museum, for more local culture.

Hi Tom, I'm hosting a ladies lunch as a low key baby shower. It's just four of us, so no need for a party room. I would like somewhere that takes reservations to ensure we get in. Can you recommend an elegant lunch spot in the northern half of DC or in MD that would make us feel a bit special? Thanks!

Sfoglina fits the bill.  Among its charms are house-made pasta, suave service and a dining room where no one has to shout to be heard.

Hi Tom, My wife and I and a friend of ours had a bad experience at Garrison last week. The service was spotty; they kept aggressively taking out plates away while we were waiting for food; they forgot to bring half of the items we ordered; and the dishes came out in whatever order they were ready, meaning that the last item we were served was a bread roll. One thing confused me, though: we ordered farro pasta that evening, but due to a mixup we were served the farro and carrot salad instead. We took a few bites of the dish before realizing it was the wrong one, and then alerted our waitress so she could put in an order for the correct dish. At the end of the meal, I asked that the farro salad be taken off the bill, since we were also billed for the pasta - they refused since we had eaten some of it. Should we have had to pay for it? I don't feel that I should have to pay for their mistake. Honestly, we took the amount out of our collective tips anyway.

If I'm getting the full story here, Garrison should not have charged you for the dish it mistakenly sent out. I'm having trouble believing a staff member would be adamant about charging you for slip (even though you took a few bites). 

My kid's birthday is tomorrow and she would love to get a cheeseburger. We usually take her to Franklin's (Hyattsville) or Four Corners Pub (Silver Spring) but do you have any recommendations for a place with smaller, hand-sized burgers in the area? I hate how most restaurants stack them so high they fall apart or have to be cut in half. I love how elevation burger fits in a sleeve.

I'm a fool for the mini-burgers served at Matchbox, which has branches in Chinatown, on 14th St. NW and elsewhere, as much for the fun size as the juicy patties and fried onion garnish. Also, in my recent survey of top chain restaurants, I found myself gravitating to the tasty mini-burgers at Chili's.

When will the WP get a restaurant reviewer who doesn't let his or her biases dictate what restaurants they review?

Tell me what you think my biases are, please.

Hi Tom, thank you so much for your weekly chats! I was at a restaurant last night and having dinner at the bar. A couple sitting next to me where not drinking. I heard them say no to drinks at least 5 times... one bar tender even repeatedly asked are you sure when they said no. If someone wants to sit at a bar and have a nice meal without drinks, that shouldn't be a big deal. Am I missing something?

That bar tender sounds not long for the job (oh wait. I take that back. Restaurants are begging for help these days.) Under no circumstances should diners who don't drink be badgered into doing so -- no matter where they're seated.

where do you shop for your groceries when cooking at home. I've always wondered

Often, it depends on where I'm reviewing when I remember we're out of milk or eggs or bananas. Sometimes it's Giant. Other times it's Whole Foods or Harris Teeter.  Or 7-11 (true).

Took my office to a Sunday Brunch buffet. Twenty of us had a pleasant meal helping ourselves to the buffet. The only service we received was 1 staff member filling our coffee cups. I was surprised to be charged a 20% tip which was calculated on the total after tax was included. Is mandatory 20% tip appropriate for a buffet? Much thanks.

Twenty percent gratuity seems high for buffet service -- 10 percent or more is standard -- but are you sure your attendant was just filling coffee cups (and not restocking food, clearing dirty plates, etc.)?

I know Tom is not a huge fan, but I had my large wedding rehearsal dinner at Carmine's, and highly recommend it for a big group. Talk about a fun time -- mangia!

I don't have a big issue with Carmine's, although I think the portion sizes are one reason why Americans have an obesity problem. (Yes, I know the plates are meant for sharing, but do we really need meatballs the size of our heads?)

I went to Sfoglina for thefirst time this evening. The food was wonderful and I appreciated the quiet ambiance that made conversation easy . I was dismayed however at overhearing the manager repremanding the bus staff for throwing away food after another customer made a complaint. He told them that they should leave the dish on the table gratis and bring them the new dish in addition. I suppose the risk of the open kitchen is that guests can overhear such conversations but it was not professional for me to need to hear this.

Let this be a lesson to staff everywhere: diners hear (and see) more than you think they do. If you have an issue with a colleague, take it in back, somewhere private.

My husband is 14 years sober. We often choose to eat at the bar of a restaurant. This has never happened to us. If it did my husband would probably say 'I used to like it too much so I'm sticking to coke'. I would like to say something more pointed. Seriously bad behavior.

I like your husband's response.

Hello, I read your reviews and online chat transcripts religiously from Mountain View, CA. I was in Bethesda for a meeting and had dinner at Passion Fish with a colleague. I enjoyed the oysters with champagne and a black bass special (whole fish) that was delicious. Another colleague had dinner with one of his daughters who lives locally at Tail Up Goat and he thought it was fantastic. I sometimes think I know more about DC restaurants than I do SF restaurants due to you. Thank you. BTW, I should be back for a meeting with the FDA early in April and I could use some help with dinner in the Silver Springs Area, please.

Thanks for the kind words. In Silver Spring, you should make time for Jewel of India and Bete Ethiopian Cuisine for kitfo (think steak tartare) and tilapia, served as a peppery fish salad. 

If you could name three lasting influences on international cuisine that would be attributable to the late acclaimed chef Paul Bocuse, what would they be?

  Bocuse, who died earlier this month at 91, helped modernize French food (he was an early proponent of nouvelle cuisine); was among the first celebrity chefs -- a tireless self-promoter, in fact; and launched what has become the culinary equivalent of the Olympics, the Bocuse d'Or cooking contest.

Hi Tom, I was hoping you could put out a memo to the area restaurants regarding Restaurant Week, if they are pairing down their regular menus or not serving other menus, please post it on your website. I felt a little burned last week on our rare date night out and this isn't the first time this has happened. In a previous life (before kids and a move to the suburbs), my husband and I went out to dinner a lot, but now it has turned into an important, planned out, few times a year event. So it means a lot of us. I was gifted for Christmas with a show at the Kennedy Center and dinner out before hand by my husband. He picked the restaurant, Iron Gate, and we stalked the menu online for weeks before hand. I knew it was Restaurant Week when we had our reservation (1/27), but there wasn't anything on their website about a paired down menu for the occasion, only listing their special Restaurant Week menu (which we did not plan on taking part in) along with their many other menus. When we got the restaurant and inquired about the Chef Tasting, we found out that their Family Table and Chef Tasting menu were not being served during Restaurant Week and a few of the items on their normal dinner menu were not available either. While we had a lovely dinner with great service in a romantic setting, it was a disappointment to not have the full menu available. Please tell restaurants to let their patrons know before hand if they will be serving a menu differing than what is posted online, it seems like an easy thing to do especially with OpenTable and other reservation sites, or when they call to confirm the reservation as well.

Because you submitted this in advance of today's live chat (hint, hint), I was able to reach out to Tony Chittum, the chef at Iron Gate, for a response. Here's his email:

 

Thank you for reaching out to us directly with this issue. These guests are absolutely right that we could have and should have done a better job of communicating our Restaurant Week changes via all of our communications outlets, most importantly our website. With your help, I would love to connect with these guests so that we can provide them with the experience for which they were hoping. I would also like to thank them - as you always say, we chefs and restaurateurs cannot get better without their valuable feedback. Please let them know that we truly value that they took the time to share this experience. "

If the original poster sees this, please reach out to me at tom.sietsema@washpost.com and I'll connect restaurant with patron.

No question, just a rant. People probably mistake your preferences for biases. You seem incredibly fair in your reviews, and when people in this chat ask for a recommendation, you often recommend the a lot of the same restaurants...but that's probably because you prefer the restaurants for the quality they offer. It's opinion folks, not a science. There are going to be restaurants that Tom likes but you don't. It's just the nature of a subjective review. There's a Filipino restaurant that you love which I despise, but almost every other restaurant you've steered me towards has been a slam dunk!

Interesting. Are you referencing Bad Saint, by chance? And if so, tell me what you don't like about it.

We stopped going to a local fast-casual place after hearing a manager say to a waiter, "Come back here, you little s__t."

Ouch.

Any suggestions on what to order?

Ha. Ha. Ha. Not.

In reference to the discussion last week, as a former server, I think it's important to take the normal flow of a dinner into account and also to recognize the balance of hospitality with the need for "real estate" to turn. Often, guests don't realize that their actions have communicated that they are ready for the check without explicitly asking for it. If a server has been to your table multiple times after you have finished your dessert and drinks, they may finally say to you, "Is there anything else I can offer you this evening?" If you decline, despite not explicitly asking for the check, it isn't presumptuous of the server to kindly drop the bill at your table and say, "This is here for you whenever you are ready for it," as you have communicated that their services are no longer required. In addition to the rude and inhospitable nature of dropping a check without any prompting, it is rude to hold a table indefinitely after your meal is done, no matter how good the conversation is. Remember that, while your server strives to be gracious and welcoming, they are also trying to pay their rent or mortgage. This is not to say that the commentators from last week experienced this particular event or weren't responding to a real slight, but I think it's smart to caution or curtail the idea that the table is the customers' property in perpetuity until specifically articulated verbally that they are done. There's a balance to be struck.

Well put. Thanks for sharing the industry perspective.

Re: bartenders and servers who aggressively push drinks - a reminder that while alcohol is just part of the job/meal for some, it is also a very personal topic for others. There are lots of reasons - medical, religious, addiction (which I consider medical), etc. - why someone might not drink. I understand that restaurants make a high profit on drinks, so by all means ask once, but then take a no as a no.

Yes to all that.

Hi Tom. Am addicted to your weekly chats -- it's the highlight of my Wednesday! Your thoughts: I frequently go out with a friend who will start writing her Yelp reviews barely halfway through our meals, and most of them are pretty nasty. It doesn't event make a difference to her when a manager or supervisor is called over and is doing pretty much anything to rectify the situation. Talking to my friend about her behavior and actions on Yelp hasn't helped. Is there anything you recommend that I can do in trying to take the bite out of her frequently off-base and largely unfair Yelp reviews? I've thought about going on Yelp myself and posting several anonymous and fair reviews to drive hers further down, but was wondering if you had any thoughts or recommendations?

This friend's behavior sounds cray-cray. What's her deal? Control issues? From what you say, she's basically lying in her online reviews. And who writes the reviews AS THEY'RE EATING? This sounds like fodder for a Hax forum. 

Good morning, Tom - I have been on a lot of work travel and had to miss my boyfriends birthday. Again. I will be back next week and looking to take him out for dinner on Monday or Tuesday. We are trying to scale back expenses a bit as we are moving to the west coast soon, so I wouldn't want to go all out. But looking for a quiet, romantic restaurant. Red Hen is usually our go-to for these things in our neighborhood on a cold winter night in the price range I'm thinking of, but want to try someone new. Any ideas? Because I am not sure when I will get back to DC, I am hesitant to make a reservation that I end of cancelling, and we are always happy to eat at the bar. We are on the medium experimental level, at best (especially me) but not limited by dining cuisine. I want to emphasize that something on the quiet side would be greatly appreciated, as I will be coming off of 14 days of conference travel and just want to talk to my babycakes without hurting the sore throat strained by painful conversations over bad cocktails and horrible cover bands and djs that encompass corporate conference living.

I can't guarantee a hushed environment -- good restaurants tend to be animated ones -- but I can vouch for the interesting menus and inviting settings at Chloe in the Navy Yard, the second floor of the new Maydan and the just-opened Rake's Progress in the Line hotel in Adams Morgan. Also romantic and mid-priced is the tried-and-true Buck's Fishing & Camping in Upper Northwest.

We just had a baby a few months ago and are determined not to let that change our lives - which means still going out to dinner. Thankfully our little one is very chilled out and often goes unnoticed. However, much to our dismay, we've discovered that a majority of DC restaurants have no baby-changing stations in bathrooms. Of course we would never change a diaper in the dining hall, and so that often relegates this activity to the bathroom floor - very gross. As a plea from all parents of babies to restaurateurs, please install a changing station - I checked online, they're like $200.

The Tavern, the casual component of Rare Steak and Seafood downtown, should make you happy. It's handsome unisex restrooms are equipped with changing tables. 

Tom, I am planning a 40th birthday party for my husband for this summer, and I want to have it at a restaurant/bar rooftop. Ideally, the place can accommodate 40 people and has good food and drinks. If we can rent it for a private party or semi-private without breaking the bank, it would be great. I appreciate any suggestions. Thank you

Good for you for planning in advance. As I mentally look up and around Washington, El Cucho in Columbia Heights, Perry's in Adams Morgan, Marvin and Brixton on U St. NW and Sally's Middle Name on H St. NE all have rooftop spaces. (There are others, but their food is iffier.)

Tom, I'm not going to disagree at all that this friend has control issues. You are correct. She fancies herself a foodie (she's not -- she just likes to EAT), and I've gotten to the point where I have cut down my restaurant outings with her. And believe me, many in our friendship inner circles have told her she's being unfair. We're just trying to find some way to even it, since talking to her about this doesn't work. Thanks for your advice!

Ask her to read today's chat transcript?

My fiance and I eat out at higher-end restaurants often. We tip for the food and service but not the bottle of wine -- one of those etiquette points we both grew up with. Is that an antiquated rule?

Uh, yes, but I'm not sure not tipping on wine was ever a "point of etiquette" (a real practice). Wine is food, right? Put a tip on it.

Take no notice as that site is filled with some of the most hateful human beings I have ever seen. I asked a simple question about dosage for tylenol for a screaming, teething infant and I was accused of child abuse, potentially murdering my child, and a whole list of other things. When I mention that experience to other moms, they all have the same story. Awful awful website.

So we're in good company! (You and I.)

Hi Tom--I love your reviews and Ask Tom. We-my wife and I and another couple are headed to the new waterfront on Saturday and would like to hear your recommendations. Thanks. G.

Southwest waterfront? Requin and Del Mar are your best bets at the moment. Navy Yard? Try Salt Line or the aforementioned Chloe.

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. See you here next week, same time, I hope! Thanks for keeping me company.

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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