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

Feb 29, 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, thanks for doing these chats. You are an invaluable resource to us all. I'm just curious how you'd handle a situation like this. Have been dining at Restaurant X repeatedly but not frequently over a gap of some time. Have always come away satisfied and have continually recommended Restaurant X to those in my social circles. Friends have recently had a bad experience at Restaurant X and their recent experiences hints at a sudden change in quality of the dining experience. How do you discern an establishment having an off-day (it happens to us all) from an establishment steadily going down in quality? Rather than relying on this third party's assessment, I feel that I do owe Restaurant X one more meal just to see if they've changed for the worse. Just wondering what metrics you use. Thanks again.

 Long answer: One of the many reasons I'm proud to be part of The Washington Post is the budget I have not just for going to restaurants a minimum of three times before writing a starred critique, but for previews of new places, two annual dining guides and scouting establishments for possible review. The budget also allows me to revisit previously reviewed places -- to take their temperature, so to speak -- if I  hear quality has changed (for the better or worse).


Short answer: If I visit a major restaurant and it's really off, I'd likely go back to discern whether that was a fluke or a trend at said establishment. Not everyone has that luxury, I understand.


Happy Wednesday, everyone. Sorry to have missed last week's chat, but I was out with a nasty bug for a couple days. I'm back, and (hopefully) ready to tackle whatever you throw my way this morning.


So, the big news of the week thus far is the return -- today -- of Roberto Donna to the cooking scene after a short detour to Arizona. 



Hi Tom, What, if anything, do you know about a rumor that the former GM at Locanda plans to open a restaurant in McLean tentatively named Au Bistro? Is it more than a rumor? Thanks very much.

Rumor no more: Aykan Demiroglu tells me he's taking over the former McLean 1910 at 1394 Chain Bridge Road and rebranding the place Bistro Vivant.  He's hired Christopher Carey Corey , formerly of the Wine Kitchen in Leesburg, to helm the kitchen of the 89-seat dining room. 


Demiroglu's partner in the venture is Domenico Cornacchia, owner of the Assaggi restaurants in McLean and Bethesda.


Expect a mid-March opening.

Tom, my husband is graduating from Georgetown, we would like to go to a late lunch after the events at 3pm on Friday in May. I would like to be celebratory late lunch. There will be 6 of us and we are willing to go anywhere in DC or Northern Virginia. If it helps, our favorite restaurants are Central and Fiola.

So you're looking for a different but similar scene? That's kind of tricky, since most of the good restaurants shut down between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. or so. 


In DC, your choices are more or less limited to Cafe Milano in Georgetown, Kellari Taverna on K St. NW, Oceanaire Seafood Room downtown, Ris in the West End and Oyamel and Zaytinya in Penn Quarter.

Hi Tom, In the gallery of the Obama's eating spots you decried the lack of good Chinese food offerings in the area. What's your take on Peking Gourmet?

Peking Gourmet Inn was one of 41's favorite dining destinations, but not mine, at least not in recent years.


The chatter is referring to the photo gallery of First Family-visited restaurants we put together for President's Day, fyi.

Hi, Tom! I'm performing in the Intersections Festival at Atlas this weekend, and have some family coming from the Midwest to check out the show. Is there anywhere along H St. that's relatively quiet and not-too-hipster where I could take them for dinner on Friday night? We'll probably be aiming for 8:30 or so. Thanks so much!

Break a leg!


One of the more serious restaurants in that part of town continues to be Atlas Room (and you better make a reservation, because it's not a secret).

What restaurants serve frogs legs? They are a staple in my culture, and have yet to find out where they are served

My favorite place to indulge in frogs' legs right now is at Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan, where chef Cedric Maupillier brines the delicacy and serves them with romesco (a sauce typically made with garlic, olive oil, nuts and red peppers).

My cousin is in town this week and we're trying to meet up for an early dinner Thursday near his hotel (the Hyatt on New Jersey Ave near the Capitol). The catch is that we'll have our 4 month old with us. Any recommendations for a casual dinner within walking distance of the hotel where it'll be OK to bring a stroller and/or car seat?

Art & Soul, right there in the hotel, might be your best bet.  Just fyi: I haven't been there in a couple seasons. Does anyone have a recent take on the southern-inspired restaurant from former Oprah chef Art Smith?

Long time chat lurker--can I add another pet peeve to the many irritations of restaurant websites? Please put your complete address, with zip code, somewhere on the landing page. Like many others, I rely heavily on my GPS to get to unfamiliar places. Even if I know where I'm going, sometimes I program it in anyway--maybe I want to know how long it'll take to get there if I'm running late, or I want to use the features of my GPS that highlight parking options in the neighborhood. The point is, please don't make me hunt on your webpage for 10 mins to find your address only described as "just steps from X Landmark."

Got that, restaurant website designers? We want Zip Codes on the home page, too.



Tom: Recently, we were lucky enough to get very last minute reservations at the French Laundry (3 days ahead!) and went there to celebrate a birthday. It was impressive-especially the service- but I didn't think the food lived up to its costly reputation. As our son is a chef here in the DC area, we are well aware of what constitutes a great fine dining experience and I really believe that I've had meals here in the metro area that outrank the Laundry: Restaurant Eve; Fiola and Vermilion come to mind. I am probably DC-biased but I think we are very lucky to have so many quality eateries here that provide such a wide variety of cuisines.

I hear what you're saying. While I think the French Laundry continues to be a very special experience, I'm no longer as willing as I once was to contemplate each morsel of food for several minutes, or sit at a table for longer than three hours -- anywhere.  It's just not the way I like to experience (most) restaurants anymore.

The news that he is returning as Chef but not owner seems ideal for me. I couldn't support his business practices but I adore his food. Am I a hypocrite for being thrilled?

I'll be very curious to see the reaction he gets once he starts cooking again. Despite his money and legal woes, he retains a lot of friends in the chef ranks.

Hi Tom, I'm a big fan and live by (or at least eat well because of) your reviews! I see that Le Zinc in Cleveland Park received a positive review in another publication but that you weren't so favorably impressed. Do you think it improved dramatically in the 3 months between your review and the other review or is there something else going on? (They even seemed to go out of their way to praise the same dishes you panned.) Thanks for all your hard work!

Not sure which publication you are referencing, but did you know that the opening chef  at Le Zinc left the country and his replacement is veteran chef Janice McLean, who comes from 15Ria and other restaurants?

Just wanted to put a good word in for Food Wine and & Co in Bethesda. Had an excellent dinner there last week. Very attentive staff, excellent food. Front room was very loud, though--luckily, we were in the back room, which was much quieter.

Yep, last I checked, the sound level there came in at around 75 decibels, which means you have to talk loudly to be heard at Food Wine & Co.

What is a reasonable amount of time for returning to the restaurant when forgetting the nicely boxed leftovers on the table? I knew that the entree was too much to eat when I ordered it but had looked forward to bringing it for lunch the next day. I left the restaurant without it--completely my fault--realized that when I got to my car, and was back in the restaurant within five minutes. In fact, they were still wiping down my table, although everything had been cleared off it...including my nice boxed leftovers which, it turned out, had immediately been trashed. I get that not everyone will return, especially if it's a while later, but that seemed awfully quick. As an interesting comparison, a couple months ago I'd done the same thing at a different restaurant (I swear, this is not a pattern!) and when I returned some 20 minutes later--in this case, assuming it was a long shot that they were still there--they had been tossed but the restaurant insisted on making me a new portion. I recognize that was outside the norm, but is it within the norm to toss forgotten leftovers so quickly that the table is still being cleaned and not offer anything but a "oops, sorry?"

You're not going to like my response, but even if you forget your leftovers after three minutes, the restaurant can't be faulted for tossing them out. Leftover food isn't like sun glasses or purses that are left behind, after all. The restaurant has no obligation to recreate a dish that you have forgotten to take home, either.


That's not to say I don't sympathize. I, too, have left leftovers behind before (but I didn't have the courage to ask Wolfgang Puck if he'd bake another salmon-and-caviar pizza for me when I was at Spago years ago).

After several years of working full-time while going to school part-time, my boyfriend just landed a great job in his field. We both enjoy Asian and Latin food from hole-in-the-wall sorts of places in Rockville, Eden Center, Annandale, Wheaton, etc. Definitely taste over presentation. But I'd like to celebrate somewhere more upscale -- we both like the ambiance of a place like 2941. I like Jaleo but it's loud; not a big fan of Kushi or La Tasca; I've been to Rasika, Zatinya, several Arlington sushi places, and I'd prefer something new. Is there anywhere in the DMV where our culinary tastes and my desire for an upscale vibe converge? Thanks!

Of all the new restaurants on the scene, I'm most eager to return to Little Serow, hard as it is access. It's not at all dressy, but I've never seen a prettier green restaurant. And the Thai food is really, really exciting. Will that do?

In Centreville VA beats the place you reviewed today in the Food section for Kabobs. Also I prefer the Honey Pig in Centreville to the original in Annandale. better ambiance, food and service. Quality of the food is better too,

Okay, but did you notice I spent more time praising the Persion stews at Sabzi than the skewered meats?

Tom, it's Christopher Carey not Corey. aykan

My sincere apologies! Thanks for pointing out my mistake.

Person with family, both Liberty Tree and Argonaut are pretty non-hipster (lots of kids at Argonaut) and cheaper than Atlas Room. Food at both is definitely a notch below Atlas Room, though.

Agreed, which is why I put forth the Atlas Room.

I cannot believe I just read that someone wanted something more than "oops, sorry" when they forgot their leftovers and the restaurant chucked them. The number of people expecting free stuff from restaurants because of the slightest disappointment or inconvenience is astonishing. Is this new? Have we always been this self-centered? Wow.

There have always been people who expect more, more more from restaurants. What's changed everything is the Internet.

Has anyone been to the revamped 2941? I heard from a couple of friends that they loved the decor as well as the food, but they hadn't been there before. I think it's great that Chamel finally gets to have his own concept instead of carrying on Krinn's. Hopefully it works to bring back some of its original luster. I have my fingers crossed for you guys over there!

I knew I was in for a very different dining experience at 2941 the moment I saw sliders and macaroni and cheese on a menu from Bertrand Chemel, who spoke to me late last year about the about-face his restaurant intended.


Whay sayeth the peanut gallery?

Yes, not only do some restaurant websites leave off zip codes, but some have the address as an image file or flash, so that you cannot copy & paste or otherwise select their address to look up directions! Why make it MORE difficult to get to your restaurant?

Ah, another useful bit of advice for website designers.


Here's my plea: Do not post hours that you don't (or have yet to) honor. This past weekend, I checked the site of a new restaurant and saw that it was open. I even called the restaurant, and got a recording saying the place was open on Sunday.


So what happens when I get there? Only the retail portion of the establishment is open, not the restaurant proper! Confusion ensued as I had to re-route my posse. Not fun!

Hi, Tom. My husband and i are attending an evening reception at the British Embassy on his birthday. Reception ends at 8:00. Where should we go for dinner? We regularly do Penn Quarter, but i am drawing a blank for anything up Massachusetts Avenue. Thanks!

How about Two Amys, near National Cathedral, or Sushiko, in Glover Park?

I second that. The expectation of people is no longer prompt and attentive service. It is smiling while I ask the chef to prepare your dish the same as you make it at home, change 4 out of 5 tasting menu courses, and helping you to name your first born.

You sound like a chef (or a server)!

Hi Tom, What do you think of the fact that Orso is losing yet another chef? Any indication of why the move was made, and of what is in store for the menu?

I never spoke with the owner about the arrival of Will Artley at Orso (another interesting bit of news this week). But the chef he's replacing is landing in a pretty sweet spot: Birch & Barley in Logan Circle.

Hello Tom, We have recently moved to Annapolis and are wondering if you have been and can recommend any Restaurants. We love all kinds of food.

Well, it's not Hell Point Seafood, which quietly shuttered recently. I'd probably test the waters, so to speak, at the seafood-themed O'Learys or the turf-heavy Lewnes' Steakhouse.  I've not been, but the trendy Level has its fans.

Hi Tom, Any suggestions for a romantic (dimly lit, not super loud) yet laid-back restaurant for a 3rd date? Any type of food and price range is fine, preferably in DC. Thank you!

The aforementioned Boundary Road on H St. NE fits that description. So does the increasingly-crowded bar at Fiola in Penn Quarter. And what about Buck's, up near Politics & Prose? Love the moody setting there.

Mr. or Ms. OMG, read the question, please. I did NOT say I expected free stuff. I said I realized the restaurant that HAD made a new portion was not the norm. My question to Tom was what constituted a reasonable amount of time for returning to a restaurant before finding that leftovers had been tossed. Tom, I'm feeling very sympathetic about the times chatters misread you!

Trust me, readers let me know when they think I'm wrong! Or when I've misread something. Or ... let's just say, you have to have really thick skin on this side of the screen.

Hi Tom, I work in Georgetown and just read that Il Canale received recognition/certification by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN Association). While most of the Georgetown restaurants leave much for desire in the food/taste department, Il Canale is on my short list of acceptable restaurants. Have you been? Curious what you think, as I have only dined for lunch and only sampled the pizza and salad.

It's been over a year since I ate at the restaurant, which, at the time, I didn't like well enough to write about for a large Magazine audience. Maybe it's time for me to reconsider, though. Here's the latest on the cerification from my colleague Tim Carman.

The Inn at Little Washington and The French Laundry received none, and these are just two of the best restaurants in the country that come to mind that failed to make it onto the list of semi-finalists. Meanwhile, other restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic and S.F. regions that are good--but a notch or two below the aforementioned--garnered one or more nominations. What am I missing here?

You are overlooking the fact that both restaurants have received multiple James Beard Foundation awards in previous years and they are ineligible from winning those same honors again (unless, of course, there are chef changes or their owners open new restaurants).

I also love the French Bistro across from Two Amys. More adult and lovely French Food.

That would be Le Zinc, mentioned above, which I have not been to since its chef switch.

for the new Annapolitans: we love Piccola Roma - fresh food, always delicious, and a nice mix of "traditional" Italian dishes and newer fare. The service is just attentive enough without being overbearing.

Thanks for weighing in just before we say good-bye today.

I've always enjoyed Harry Browne on State Circle, especially for a fabulous Sunday brunch with great food and superior service.

And another shout out to Annapolis!

Tom, I can't believe how the rude management at Buck's has pulled the wool over your eyes. They recognize you which is why you love it there and talk it up in your chat. It's led me to conclude that you need to retire from this gig. All the restauranters have a blown-up photo of you in their kitchens, and serve you accordingly; so how can you write objectively about any of them?

Yes, I know the owner of Buck's, socially, but that certainly hasn't prevented me from criticizing the restaurant or leaving it out of a dining guide or two.


 You know what else? I have a really good BS detector.  I know when people are buttering me up.  I don't take any of that too seriously.


Time's up, folks. Thanks for joining me today. See you back here next Wednesday, same time. Chow!

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: