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

Feb 04, 2015

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.

I am not a fan of DC Restaurant Week but when I read your tweet that Frank Ruta was previewing some dishes from his forthcoming menu at The Grill Room (Capella Hotel), I made a reservation for last Friday night. We arrived on time, were seated and given regular menus. I asked the hostess for the RW menu and she provided them. A few minutes later she returns to say that the kitchen has run out of the RW menu. When I asked what they were substituting, the hostess replied that only the regular menu was available. At that point we left and went elsewhere. Given that the Grill Room is small, was half empty and it was early in the evening with another day of RW remaining. this was difficult to understand. As you can imagine, I am no longer a fan of Frank Ruta who clearly does not care about his customers or his reputation. I predict that his run at the Capella Hotel will be a short one. (Perhaps you should get a guarantee from Ruta/his publicist before running an item. ;-)

 I reached out to the hotel venue for a response. Here's what general manager Marco Bustamante emailed back:

 

“We sincerely apologize as that evening of Friday the 23rd due to the overwhelming response of Chef Frank’s menu, we unfortunately sold out of the 35 portions that we had prepared for the evening.

 

Again we are terribly sorry that we did not deliver on our promise that evening and sincerely hope that you will give us another chance in the future when Chef Frank is complete with his menu development in mid-February.”

 

Tom here. In my opinion, the restaurant lost out on a chance to win a new customer. If a guest comes in specifically for a promotion, and that promotion is no longer available, the restaurant has an obligation to make good on the deal. How thoughtful (and smart) it would have been for the Grill Room to apologize and let the guests try something on the standing menu for the Restaurant Week price.

 

Good morning, gang. Thanks for joining me today. I'm off to Madrid and San Sebastian for a week tomorrow, so I won't be hosting a chat Feb. 11. But you'll find me back again on Feb. 18, hopefully with some good Spanish stories to share.

 

Plenty to talk about today. Did you read where Urban Butcher in Silver Spring is reopening after a devastating fire four months ago? ... Earlier this morning, my Sunday review of DBGB Kitchen and Bar went online. The restaurant has improved a lot since its debut, and it may be even better than the original in New York ... In Brookland, the fast-casual Halsa celebrates a healthy lifestyle, in part by serving the increasingly popular bone broth on its mindful menu.

 

Let's get started.

 

My boyfriend and I both work odd hours (and aren't into Valentine's night dinner out — too crazy!) but did want to treat ourselves out to a nice dinner after Valentine's Day this year. Knowing that we don't eat meat (fish is OK) and love trying new beer, wine and cocktails, what would your top (not too pricy) picks be? (Side note: We've always liked the idea of a tasting menu, but haven't had a lot of luck finding one without meat). Thanks!

I did some research and came up with three different ideas for you. One involves the $58 meatless tasting at the peerless Rasika in Penn Quarter. The second strategy is the five-course, $65 vegan script at Equinox downtown. The third is four courses (including some fish or seafood)  for $35 at the cozy G by Mike Isabella on busy 14th St. NW.

 

Good luck!

Tom, any recommendations for higher-end solo dining (preferably at a restaurant bar) that is quiet enough where one could enjoy the company of a good novel as a dinner companion? I found Central to have, more often than not, a post-fraternity house atmosphere (although when it is quiet it is spot on).

The bar at the made-over Oval Room near the White House isn't very big, but I think it's a lovely place to eat, drink and read. Equally alluring is the lounge at Fiola Mare, just off the entrance of the Italian seafood restaurant in Georgetown. And don't forget the handsome bar at Marcel's, which I recently awarded 3 1/2 stars (out of four) after some truly special meals in the West End dining room. 

Hey Tom, I don't really have a question, just wanted to let everyone know Justus Frank is NO longer at Nonna's Kitchen and though someone may be cooking HIS food in the restaurant it should not be associated with him, nor should the service be associated with the opening team as they have departed as well. Good Luck Nonna's, I wish I could tell you that the food was going to be better, but I will never eat there again since they let Chef Frank go.

Boo! Unfortunate news.

I just got off the phone with Justus Frank, who confirms he was let go from the restaurant yesterday.

 

"It was a difference of opinion between the owners and myself," says the chef, who previously cooked at the esteemed Fiola in Penn Quarter. At the end of the day, he says, his former bosses wanted a cheaper approach to the idea he helped bring to life.

 

 Anyone restaurant in need of a talented and visionary young chef? Frank is all ears.

The question has been bothering me. A few weeks ago we treated some young adult relatives to dinner at a well known restaurant in a nearby city. We were having a nice time. So what should I have done when I bit into my food and it was crunchy - as in dirt-from-unwashed-vegetables crunchy? I tried to discreetly tell the waitress about it but the conversation between us was heard by everyone at the table and immediately chilled down the atmosphere. When restaurant managers say you should let them know of your complaints, don't they understand that even the most polite complaint is still a confrontation? We did not hear anything from the manager. My uneaten meal was not removed from our bill. I don't I should have had to make that request. We paid to have a nice meal and a relaxing time, not ague with the staff about the inedible food. This type of thing is one reason I don't even enjoy eating in restaurants much any more.

If I'm reading this correctly, there wasn't any "argument" between you and the server. She apparently didn't bring it to the attention of a manager (or if she did, he didn't follow up).

 

 Just how quietly did you bring up the complaint if everyone heard you? If your complaint registered with the server and you didn't eat much of the salad, I'm confused why the dish was left on your tab.

 Sounds as if the best thing to have done would have been to excuse yourself from the table and connected with a manager to explain your unhappiness with soil in your greens. That way, no one would have heard you.

Hi Tom--last week you said you no longer eat shark's fin soup. I was a bit taken aback that you had ever eaten it. Did you not know at the time about the cruelty?

The first time I tried shark's fin (it's rather bland), I was unaware of the controversy. In the last 10 years, I've probably had it once. But no more.

Tom, My wife and I are getting a much deserved afternoon/early evening away from the kids this weekend. Where would you recommend for late lunch and then maybe a drink? Was thinking of Jack Rose for a drink but not sure my wife would enjoy that as much as I would.

Check out CityCenterDC, home to the very good DBGB Kitchen and Bar, then wander over to Penn Quarter for some liquid fun: the bars at Zaytinya, Jaleo or Fiola  would all be nice places to hang for a drink.

"Helpful Waitress Asks Recently Seated Couple If They’ve Eaten Food Before"

Love it!

Hi Tom, I have always been a big fan of the food at a certain long lived DOC pizza spot in northwest DC, but last night may have been my last meal there. As a former server I know that some diners ask for lots of free extras, but last night, I asked for a ramekin of tomato sauce to supplement what looked and tasked like barely 1 tbsp of the red stuff on our pizza (listed on the menu as the third ingredient, after mozza and fried eggplant). The server informed us of a $2.50 charge for what amounted to ketchup, so I asked to talk to the manager, who reluctantly, and only after giving us some serious attitude and a lecture about DOC pizza standards, ending with the newest in passive aggressive snarks “JUST SO YOU KNOW” brought us the sauce. I felt insulted, and dismissed, and after approaching the manager after the meal to let how know how rude I thought she was, I left an extra 2.50 on the server stand – the restaurant must have needed it more than me. Sorry for the rant, but if you can’t treat your customers respectfully in the HOSPITALITY business, then you should find a new job.

"Just so you know?" For real? Ouch. There's a better way of sharing information with diners than that, for sure.

 

I'd be peeved, too.

Hi Tom: My husband and I went out for a birthday celebration to Morini in Navy Yard on Saturday night. We had a really terrific time, which was highlighted by the pastry chef making a banana cake layered with a light vanilla cream and banana flavored ganache. Do you know how hard it was to find a restaurant that would make a birthday cake? We called at least three or four places and then asked a friend for help because we did not want to buy one from a bakery and pay a "corkage" fee of sorts. What is your experience with restaurants offering special birthday cakes? Morini offered them, the pastry chef made the customized one we asked for, and it was outstanding. What's your experience?

I don't have a lot of experience ordering birthday cakes from restaurants, as I tend to order off the standing menu for work. But good for Morini for accepting the challenge and making your occasion more festive!

 

Some restaurants allow diners to bring in their own party cakes, and charge a "caking fee"  for the privilege. I think that's fair; the group won't be ordering dessert, after all, but they'll require dishes and utensils to serve what they've brought in.

Does bone broth actually taste like anything? I mean, since meat stock usually has added vegetables and herbs.

The bone broth I've tried has all included enhancers -- herbs and such. By itself, the broth can be one-note, more or less  hinting of the bones (chicken, beef, whatever) it's based on.

Hi, Tom. Love following your chats. Finally have a question for you- my husband is an adventurous eater and wants to try sweetbreads. Any recommendations in D.C. or Arlington(ish) for a great first taste? Thank you!

I've had terrific sweetbreads over the years at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, which currently serves the organ meat with rutabaga puree, spinach and mushroom "air."  Also memorable have been the grilled sweetbreads at Del Campo downtown, where the chef bastes the treat with parsley, garlic and shallots. And I never visit Green Pig Bistro in Arlington without ordering "kung pao" sweetbreads, a  joyride of lamb, crushed peanuts and gingery soy sauce.

DC...chill out. It seems that when people in this city go out they expect 100% perfection. It's an imperfect world. All of the sudden 80% or 90% is just unacceptable these days. Sure, I get it, one is spending their hard earned dollars on an experience, etc. But for crying out loud everyone, stop crying.

People can be pretty hard on their restaurants, can't they? I agree, not all issues require swearing off a restaurant for life. Like seeing a mouse in a restaurant. Or getting a little soil in your food. Stuff happens.

Maybe it's an art form, but 99% of any comments or complaints I've had to make either with a server or a manager didn't ruin the meal or conversation. Not that I've had to complain that many times, but there has been an occasional bottle of skunky wine or an incorrect dish that had to be addressed. Some people are just plain uncomfortable with type of stuff whether its to their waiter or their doctor or their mother-in-law (perhaps they should be writing to Carolyn Hax?), but if you gut-check that it's reasonable and keep a smile on your face whenever possible, it's not really that bad. I promise. The restaurant usually wants to make it right.

That sound you hear? It's me applauding your sensible post.

Any suggestions for a graduation dinner on a Sunday evening for a group of 8-10? I'm looking for something that can please foodies and a younger brother who doesn't like "fancy" food. Budget is flexible, but hopefully will stay close to Georgetown or that area.

It might be too small for your group, but I'm fond of the young Chez Billy Sud on 31st St. NW, which has steak frites to appease Junior. 1789, in the shadow of Georgetown University, always has something for every taste, and it comes with the bonus of dining rooms that allow for easy conversation. In the West End, Ris can easily accommodate your party. (Just remember, if you've got youngin's, don't leave them sitting in the car while you eat ...)

Hey Tom. Heading to NOLA middle of next week for Mardi gras and to see family. Wifey and I are looking for a few new places or ones off the beaten path to hit up before it gets crazy. Also, we are looking for a few places (other than commander's- we've been several times) in or near the Garden District as that is where we are staying. We haven't been there in a couple years and don't know what's changed. Any thoughts you have are greatly appreciated!

Lucky you! The restaurants that food friends down there are buzzing about these days include Domenica, Coquette, La Petite Grocery and Toups Meatery. For cocktails, fit Cane and Table and the veteran Arnaud's French 75 into your game plan.  Finally, here are some additional ideas from my last Postcard from Tom from New Orleans.

I will be attending a meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. I didn't see a "Postcard from Tom" for Louisville. I am hoping you or others might have recommendations for fine dining in Louisville. Thank you!

I have yet to give the city a taste-drive. But the reviews for Lilly's, 610 Magnolia and Herons all suggest they are worth your time and attention. Readers?

 

Lots of chatters with lots of travel requests today. Everyone seems to be getting away from the cold ...

Tom, I am bound for LA and then on to Miami. I would appreciate your dining recommendations for both cities. Regarding Miami, I would like to avoid Soth Beach if possible. Thank you!

 (Hey, no fair! One question per post, please.)

 

 The best meal I had in Miami last month was a lunch of stone crab claws and fried chicken at the time-tested Joe's Stone Crab -- in Miami Beach, which is where I stayed. The second best was drinks and appetizers at the retro Cypress Room in Miami's Design District. I never made it to Pubbelly, alas, which some hired mouths of my acquaintance seem to like for its Asian fusion.

 

Otherwise, the trip was a bust, though. It's hard to find a really ace cocktail down there, and even some of the big names, like Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, executed surprisingly middling meals. 

 

As for Los Angeles, get thee to Providence, Chi Spacca, Trois Mec, Animal  and the new Petit Trois in Hollywood, which I hear raves about. 

I agree, and there are much bigger issues in the world too, which in the big pucture invalidates pretty much any concern raised in this or any other food forum. However, being rude and dismissive to a customer is not a good way to conduct business, wether you are in the restaurant business or the heart surgery business. I am a super chilled diner, who thanks service pros as much as possible for the gruling work they do (which I did for close to ten years), and i never looking for a fight or a freebie, but my heart was pounding, and i felt insulted, and there is no excuse fo that.

I hear you.

 

When I complained to my SO recently about a little restaurant issue, he joked, "First-World problem." To which I replied, "Yeah, but guess what? We're in the First World." 

 

Don't take that exchange for anything other than light-hearted. Of COURSE there are more pressing concerns than a spilled glass of wine or an intrusive server.

 

Hi Tom! I'm heading down to Miami this weekend for a well deserved rest. I think you were there recently. Could you share any hits with this big fan of your work? (10 years and counting!)

See above. I don't need to go back to Miami for a long, long time.

 

Do you like Haitian food? Tap Tap in Miami Beach counts some serious fans. Goat is among the attractions, I understand.

 

Hi Tom - Have you had a chance to visit Mango Tree yet? I'm wondering how it compares to the other restaurants in town that tout authentic Thai cuisine. We certainly do have some great options for that in DC already.

The Thai scene is getting better, isn't it? And dressier as well, evinced by such arrivals as Soi 38 downtown and Mango Tree, which I'll be reviewing next month.

(There have been several questions related to this recently.) My partner and I are early diners and, too frequently, we get taken to a subpar table e.g. one near the kitchen door or a register - when the room is wide open. We know there's availability because most of the time when I ask for a better table, it's forthcoming. Do some restaurants have a *policy* of trying to foist a bad table off on a customer as soon as possible?

If anyone has a policy, they're not sharing it with the food critic of the Washington Post!  But I have to think waiters are being coached to seat early birds in less popular parts of the dining room, only because I get steered to Siberia all too often when I'm eating before prime time.

Sure, it might seem extreme, but we all work hard for our money, (at least most of us do, right?). There are lots of choices out there and I'd rather return to a place that treated me as a valued customer or give a new place a chance than return to a place that blew it. Especially if blowing it involved rudeness or disrespect in any way.

True. Restaurants have a lot of competition. They need to remember that.

Tom, We are offering a 4 course seafood-focused meal with a complimentary glass of champagne, on the evening of 13th and 14th here at Fishnet, Shaw. Menu cost is $45 per person. Have a good trip in Madrid!! Thanks, Ferhat

Thanks for chiming in, sir! Here's a link to the special.

Went out for a birthday meal at the fabulous Red Hen. Everything was lovely, except one pasta dish was so over-salted we couldn't eat it. We were sitting at the bar, the bartender noticed us avoiding the dish and asked us about it. We politely mentioned that it seemed over salted and he whisked it away to the chef. We saw the chef actually taste our dish (!) and he prepared another himself after acknowledging that they got it wrong. Won't hesitate to return. Mistakes don't matter -- it's how they are handled, by both parties. It's what we teach our kids, right?

Bravo to all involved at Red Hen: chill diners, pro-active bar tender, responsive chef.

Hi Tom, Since you're fielding so many southern city requests today, how about Savannah? I saw the Postcard you did in 2009 -- just wondering if you have any newer tips for something in the historic area and ideally not seafood-only. Thanks!

Savannah has a lame dining scene, I'm sorry to report. But! I've heard good early reports about a place called The Grey, set in an old bus station and serving southern cooking with twists.

Frankly, that manager's response to a perfectly reasonable request for extra pizza sauce (whatever happened to the customer is always right?) is one reason why review sites like yelp exist. I would have been positively lyrical in my review of that restaurant.

Yelp has its value -- if you find reasoned and experienced diners on the consumer site.

While some of the smaller plates are great at this venerable spot; the pizzas clearly are not very good any more. And as someone who eats a lot of pizza and has traveled to Italy, they don't seem to resemble any certified DOC pizzas that I have ever seen before. For my money I would rather eat a pie at Ghibellina.

Or Etto, or Pupatella or Menomale or ....

Hi Tom, RE this: 'I agree, not all issues require swearing off a restaurant for life. Like seeing a mouse in a restaurant. Or getting a little soil in your food. Stuff happens.' I agree with your first sentence. However, to me, seeing a mouse, or [really?] getting a little soild in your food, is completely unacceptable. If I wouldn't accept a mouse, or unwashed vegetables, in my home, I certanly wouldn't accept them at a restaurant. OK, perhaps the mouse isn't the restaurant's fault. I understand they can slip under a door. :( Yet unwashed veggies ARE a reason to never again visit a restaurant. Just ask yourself, "Would Whole Foods, or my favorite salad bar, fail to wash their salad bar ingredients?" The answer is, "No." It's perhaps even a reason to fail a health inspection. Of that, I'm not sure. Willing to listen.

I've found pebbles in mushroom caps before. Fortunately, I discovered them before chipping a tooth. My point is, a cook can be vigilant, but still miss things. I'm not making an excuse, just sayin'.

 

Funny story. Years ago, I was waiting tables in a pizza joint and a man whose English wasn't great called me over and pointed to a piece of mushroom on his pie.

Diner: I've got semen in my pizza!

Me: Oh dear. Um, can I see?

Diner: Sure!

Me: (Looking closer at pizza) Oh, that's a rock!

Diner: Yeah, CEMENT!

Me: (Breathing huge sigh of relief and smiling) I'll be right back with a fresh pie for you, sir.

Louisvillian here! We have many terrific restaurants in the city and no doubt there will be something to tempt taste buds. In the Highlands neighborhood, check out Jack Fry's or Seviche; Downtown: Milkwood; In the NuLu district: Mayan Gypsy, Decca, and Hillbilly Tea; Germantown: Eiderdown, Hammerheads. J-town: Mussel & Burger Bar (upstairs), Cena's Italian restaurant (downstairs) Those are just a few off the top of my head. Ask the locals - everyone has a favorite place to share!

Reader to the rescue!

My rule for Yelp and Urbanspoon is to ignore any reviews that feature bad spelling and punctuation and multiple exclamation points. "this place is NOT!!! kid-freindly as advertised!!! Stay away!!!!!!!" is going to be completely discounted.

Sound advice.

Some months ago you recommended the Inn for a special dinner celebration. We followed your advice, and had a memorable night, with splendid food and service. Thanks for your great advice!!

You are welcome. Care to share a highlight or 20?

I agree that it shouldn't be done lightly, but it is sometimes very justified. A restaurant very near my house (that you've positively reviewed in the past) earned that status for me... I'd been a regular enough customer that I was recognized and they knew my usual order when I had a truly terrible experience one night when the normal manager was out. The next day the normal manager actually called me to apologize it was so bad. So I took a few months off because I was still upset, then went back willing to forgive and forget. Of the 4 ppl at my table, 3 of us got food poisoning, and the 4th hadn't eaten two of the dishes the rest of us had. It's now off my list for good.

Well, you TRIED.

I think other readers have pointed this out to you in the past, but bars are often not a good place for solo female diners who just want to eat and read a book. Too many men make erroneous asssumptions about women at bars.

I'd love to think that's not always true in 2015 ...

I'll chime in. I was there the same night. We also were not given the restaurant week menu upfront, but did get it after a few minutes. The meal was ok, but not up to the Palena standard, and the prices at the restaurant's regular menu would dissuade me from trying again soon unless rave reviews come in. I'd give him more time to get his act together. That said, our waiter was absolutely lovely, and I'd ask for him again. He said he's from Morocco but I didn't get his name. We did have a really nice time that night overall, particularly because he was so nice, without being obtrusive.

Thanks for weighing in. I hope Mr. Ruta and company see this.

Just take a look at the reviews of dining critics from major papers on the East Coast. Just because you can spell and only use one exclamation point doesn't mean you have a clue. At least in the DC area we have the Washingtonian and Northern VA mag to go to since the Wp can't be trusted.

Did someone forget his coffee this morning?

Or rather:

DID SOMEONE FORGET HIS COFFEE THIS MORNING?????!!!!!!!!!!

OK... I would be very unhappy to find pebbles in mushrooms. To me, this suggest a lack of sufficient time to prepare the dish. We shall agree to disagree.

Pebble, singular. (Sorry!)

I love the masochism of the people who HATE!!!!!!!!! your reviews but still camp out in the chats.

I'm amused by it. Like, why do they do it?

I hope you notified the Health Dept.

And I hope you all have a delicious remainder of the week.

 

Remember, I'm away next Wednesday. But I'll be back to take your questions and comments (you, too, Grumpy) on Feb. 18.  Thanks for a lively discussion.

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 sidewalk.com 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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