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

Feb 08, 2017

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

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Hi Tom. Love your chats! I wanted to share an experience I had a few weeks ago with Nasime and get your thoughts. I live in Alexandria so I was excited to try out a close place that you had approved. :) The good: 4/5 dishes were incredible. They were prepared creatively and had delicious ingredients, some of which I had never tried before. I wished I had more of everything. The bad: My party had a 45+ minute wait for a table (our reservation was at 8:30pm, which was already later than the requested reservation of 7:30pm, and we weren’t seated until after 9:15). We weren’t offered any drinks while we waited and had to stand in the cramped area at the entrance - 3/4 of the party is over 6’0. After the wait, the first thing they brought me was a cold wet towel. Thankfully the other people in my group got hot towels. I had been refreshing the online menu all day and was eagerly awaiting the duck breast entrée that had been listed the morning of the dinner. Instead, it appeared they ran out of duck and offered a salmon and rice dish with some herbs instead – nothing exciting or fancy. It was okay, but probably something I could have made at home. It also meant that all of the dishes except the ice cream at the end were seafood. I like seafood, but I wanted and had expected variety. The meh: They comped 1 drink for each of the 2 women. Everyone had ordered at least 2 cocktails, so while this was nice, I still felt like I was shortchanged overall. I just felt like I didn’t get the experience that I was charged for with my SO, even with the 1 comped drink. Also, during our 45 minute wait a few parties that came in after us were seated before us. I think they had reserved the private room in the back or the bar. I understand that the restaurant can’t control which tables linger and which don’t, but it didn’t help my impression. I will admit I didn’t confront the waitress about most of the issues, mostly because she was overwhelmed and busy with everyone else in the restaurant. Should I forgive them and give them another try once they’ve had time to work out the kinks, or should I spend money on the occasional nice dinners at more reliable/tried and true places in the future?

There are a lot of moving parts here, so let me address them one at a time, and hope Nasime, an otherwise welcome addition to Old Town, can smooth a few of the wrinkles.


The wait: There's really no place for reservation-holders to wait inside the shoebox of a restaurant. Incoming parties should be advised of that on the site or over the phone, and directed to a bar nearby that can accommodate them. It might also help for the host to tell guests they have their table for an hour or 90 minutes (two people tend to eat faster than four) ahead of being seated, so as to better control reservations. 


 The cold towel: Clearly a mistake on a winter night!


  Menu changes: They happen. But I can understand your disappointment, especially since the substitution was never announced online and the lone meat course was swapped out for fish.


 Gratis drinks: I'm confused here. What size was your party? Not sure why the females would get free drinks and any males wouldn't.  At any rate, 45 minutes is a long time to wait for a confirmed reservation. Nasime should have apologized profusely and bought you all at least one round of drinks. It's just good PR.


I'd be inclined to give the restaurant another chance, and eat on the early side (first seating) rather than later.


Happy Hump Day, everyone.  Hopefully by now, you've made plans for Valentine's Day.  My Dining column this Sunday focuses on five ways you can improve on the occasion, including tips for scoring a good seat and suggestions for the best cheapest Champagne.  And in the today's Food section, a bunch of us write about the things we love.  (I *heart*  "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook" by the late Judy Rodgers.) 


There's lots to chew over today. Let's get started.

Hi Tom - My husband and I have a major financial milestone coming up, and we'd like to celebrate with a very fancy night out! We are waffling about where to go, though. I had been sold on Pineapple and Pearls until you reviewed the vegan menu at Kobo (we keep kosher-style, so no shellfish, pork, or meat/dairy combos for us). Given those restrictions, where would you recommend?

You're in luck. On its website, Pineapple and Pearls states that staff members "happily work with guests to accommodate all allergies and dietary restrictions as well as all-ideological and religious choices with prior notice made during your booking process."  If it's a "very fancy" night you want, the four-star restaurant is where you should go -- after giving the restaurant advance notice about your diets, of course. But you definitely want to keep the intimate Kobo on your list of places to check out. It's vegan feast is among the area's most fetching.

Hi Tom, Love the weekly chats! I was hoping you would have some advice to get a bite before a show at Arena Stage on Friday evening. We aren't closed to any type of cuisine, but would like to keep it to no more than $50 a person (including a drink or two). Thanks!

To the rescue: Masala Art on 4th St SW. It's a spin-off of the reliable Indian restaurant of the same name in Tenleytown. I wish I had more suggestions, but the Southwest waterfront is a work in progress, food-wise, at the moment. 

Spending a weekend in Georgetown to celebrate my mom's 70th birthday. We have reservations for Fiola Mare for dinner on Saturday. Where would you recommend for brunch on Sunday? It will be 4 women and we're not too concerned with price. Thanks

It's been a few years since I've brunched there, but the European-style Kafe Leopold, behind M St. NW in Cady's Alley, might make a nice first meal of the day.  

Hi!! Thanks for taking this question! I'm taking my sweetie to see an illusionist at the Mayflower Hotel on Saturday and will be taking him out to dinner first. He's a picky eater and definitely not a foodie. Mostly meat/potatoes, but will do Japanese, Indian (only butter chicken), Mexican, or general domestic American. He's expressed an interest in French, but it needs to be approachable (see non-foodie remark above). I've looked around the area using google maps, but everything seems way out of his league. Can you recommend a place or two that might fit the bill? (Trying to keep it ~$100. Neither of us drink.) I would prefer to park once and walk to the restaurant and hotel, but if you have someplace in mind that would be worth the extra traffic/parking hassle, I'd be willing to do that, too. (We're in Northern Virginia if that helps.) Thanks! L.

Does your non-foodie like Italian? If so, check out the nearby Al Tiramisu for pasta with meat sauce or grilled chicken. In the opposite direction, toward downtown, I'd recommend the straightforward American menu at Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab on 15th St. NW.  The menu at the latter includes a wedge salad, fried chicken and rib-eye in addition to fish and seafood.

Went for brunch on Sunday. Wanted to love it as I am in the neighborhood, but the food was nothing spectacular and the service was really lacking. Loooong stretches were no one checked on us, dishes to share sent without serving spoons and forgotten requests to provide some. My pasta tasted mostly of salt. And we spent $160 for the four of us. Hope they can up their game.

This does not sound like the restaurant I know. Can you be more specific about the meal, specifically the pasta you had?

Hi Tom, did I read correctly that the Central chef would be leaving to start another restaurant? We wanted to have dinner there soon, either later this month or in March. Still a good idea? Thanks so much.

David Deshaies, the excellent chef there, tells me he's running behind on his forthcoming restaurant (a diner). Which means he expects to remain at Central Michel Richard "for a couple of months."

Hi Tom, Even though you've answered this before, those I searched for seemed to be 2+ years old. Is Marcel's still the go-to place for a pre-KenCen dinner? Any cuisine, not looking to blow the retirement fund, but something special for early Valentine's Day celebration. I hate going out on those "Special Days" and fighting the crowds. Thanks!

Oui, Marcel's is still a delicious pre-theater  option. But you might also consider the newish Kingbird inside the Watergate complex.  (And good for you, toasting the occasion ahead of Feb. 14! Restaurants certainly appreciate it, and you can probably dine off the regular menu.)

Hi Tom! I have an upcoming dinner at a Pineapple & Pearls and was wondering if you could solve a dilemma : If there was a food you really really hate (but aren't allergic to) can you request to not have that included in the tasting menu? For example I can't stand the taste and texture of olives but I'm not allergic (and I like olive oil!) so I'd feel a little silly/obnoxious to put down olives on the "dietary restrictions" form. Then again if I kept getting dish after dish with olives I would probably not have a great time. What's your verdict?

Be honest. If you hate olives, tell Pineapple and Pearls, because 1) the restaurant asked about your dislikes and 2) the chefs really want you to enjoy dinner. (If it's any comfort, I don't recall olives in any of the meals I've had at the four-star showstopper.)  Also, unless they're incorporated into a sauce, I don't think olives are hard to leave out of a dish. 

Hi Tom - Do you or any of the chatters have restaurant recommendations in Nairobi? Fine dining, cheap eats - I'm looking for it all! Thanks!

My brother lived over there a few years, so I reached out to him for advice this morning. He likes 360 Degrees for artisan pizza (the chefs trained in Naples); Tatu, set in an historic hotel, for steaks from cows raised on a nearby farm; and Zen Garden for Asian fusion (a hit with my mom, Dorothy Sietsema).


John Sietsema says to beware of a place called Carnivore and keep an eye out for Indian menus (there are some good ones).  Also, the rooftop bar at the Villa Rosa Kempinski is worth a look-see. Good luck!

Being kept waiting for 45 mins after a reservation time is pretty bad. There comes a point where you need to advocate for yourself by asking for the manager and raising your concerns. (That point would have been 20 mins for me.) As a counterpoint to Tom, if people are camping out after their meal, the manager should "invite" them to have a drink in the bar, as all seatings are fully booked for the night. (We once watched a foursome PLAY CARDS after they finished eating at a busy mid-level Italian place in the city.)

That's crazy, the card players!


Nasime is TINY. There's the chef behind the counter and typically a single server on the floor. So, complaining to the manager is difficult here.  ("Hey, chef, can you stop cooking and take my complaint, please?") I think Nasime owes it to its patrons to let them no there's basically no bar, since the small counter is for diners, and steer them to good nearby watering holes should thee be a wait.

Hi Tom. I want to pull myself out of a funk, and having a leisurely waterfront lunch is usually the best way to do it. Any recommendations? Price not an issue.

I've got two words of advice for you: Fiola Mare. (It's on the Georgetown waterfront.)

There is a cafe at Arena, offering salads, sandwiches and a few entrees. Would love to hear from any chatters who have been.

Chatters? I've only tried it under a different identity (the restaurant's, not mine).

Hi Tom - my husband suggested Rose's Luxury (we've been before and loved it) for his birthday but we have 2 little ones and cannot wait in line. Any suggestsions for somewhere special we can still get in for the first Saturday night in March? We like all kinds of food and price doesn't matter. Somewhere unique but not necessarily fancy is what we are looking for. Thanks!

The arty Ripple in Cleveland Park has a new chef who's doing some fine cooking right now (do not miss his panko-crusted schnitzel) and I continue to enjoy my dinners at the pasta-focused Sfoglina -- yet another feather in the cap of owner Fabio Trabocchi -- on upper Connecticut Ave. NW.

My partner and I will be attending an event this weekend at the DC Convention Center and are looking to have a nice dinner out on Friday. We like all food and are flexible on pricing. However, there are so many great options that we're having trouble choosing one. Could you help? Thanks!

Nearby, I'm a big fan of the elegant Corduroy by Tom Power and Kinship by Eric Ziebold. (Can't score a table? Both restaurants serve food at their bars.) For Italian, try Casa Luca on New York Ave., a favorite of the Obamas over the years

This is a major reason I read your chat religiously, for information like this. Crossing Nasime off my list right now!


Dining at Kinship this Friday night (so excited!) so I thought I'd re-read your review. Most of the dishes you described are no longer on the menu, except for the roast chicken. I was extremely excited to try the mushroom torchon, but it looks like they only have (real) foie gras torchon now. Have you (or fellow chatters!) been lately and can you provide some recommendations? Thank you!

I've not been in a couple months (but that chicken is divine). Readers? Has anyone eaten at Kinship more recently?

Hi Tom, I have a friend coming to town this week unexpectedly and we will likely have dinner together at least twice. Her only requirements are nothing too spicy or seafood-centric. The other I will add is no pizza and no Convivial (I know you are loving it right now). I'd love at least one option in Capitol Hill, but willing to cab to other parts of the city. Mostly we just want to have a great meal to go with our catching up. Thank you!

 It's not the quietest place on the Hill, but I really enjoy the new Joselito, which has on its Spanish menu some very good salads and pork dishes in addition to seafood. In Dupont Circle, I like the changes I see at the alluring Iron Gate, where you can graze on Italian- and Greek-inspired small plates under a grape arbor strung with lights -- and kept warm with fire pits.

The weather today is amazing. Which restaurants in the D.C. area would you suggest for outdoor dining?

I haven't called around to verify if their patios are open, but you should definitely call Haikan for ramen and Hazel for inventive "medium" plates, plus Jaleo for Spanish tapas and Dirty Habit (for charred eggplant and duck meatballs)  in Penn Quarter.

Morning, Tom! We are having a dinner for 14 for my dad's 90th birthday. I'd love to have it at a hotel restaurant with high, beautiful views of the city. But my dad wears a hearing aid and is sensitive to background noise. Any suggestions?

If you find a *good* hotel restaurant with "high, beautiful views of the city," let me know!  Because I'm not sure such exists.


 Can you settle for a beautiful restaurant with very good cooking and perfect acoustics? If so,  let me introduce you to Metier, the underground retreat from chef Eric Ziebold, whose excellent Kinship is on street level. I gave Metier 3 1/2 stars in my last fall dining guide.

I don't like chocolate, but am not allergic. I noted that on our reservation, and I got a special non-chocolate dessert (which was delicious!). They are very accommodating. Given the price and their focus on hospitality, it only makes sense to express reasonable preferences.

Thanks for the feedback.

Hi Tom, I had just won a $400 price for a dinner for two. I'm looking forward to have the best dining experience money can buy. I am an international professional working in a multilateral organization and I am kind of new to the Washington DC nightlife scheme. I will greatly appreciate your help and I don't have any dietary restrictions. Thanks, Esteban

Wow, where to start?  DC brims with restaurants that can feed you memorably with that kind of money. Among the many places you should consider are Sushi Taro for the omakase experience, the Dabney for a celebration of the Mid-Atlantic and Fiola for high-end Italian.


 Chatters, feel free to weigh in with your ideas.

In the last chat, someone asked why you should expect compensation from a restaurant for mistakes, because if a clerk at a bookstore forgot to put one of your purchases in your bag, you wouldn't expect them to give it to you free. The reason it's reasonable to expect something from a restaurant is because a big part of what you are paying for when dining out - especially at higher-end restaurants - is the experience. Poor service really hurts the experience. My wife and I went out to a fairly expensive (by our standards) restaurant one time, and I ordered a chocolate souffle for dessert up front, because of the time needed to bake it. When our main course came, the waiter told us he forgot to put in the order for it, so they would comp us another dessert. The other dessert wasn't very good, and even if it would have been better, I was really looking forward to that souffle. It put a big damper on the night.

Thanks for sharing your perspective.


About that AWOL souffle. Were you in a rush to get through the meal? Because I don't see why the dessert couldn't be started while you were eating your entree.

Different water, but is Grille Room still good, post Chef Ruta?

I've not been back since Ruta and company left to open a French restaurant, Mirabelle, expected to open next month, I'm told.

Are you sure you're a real person, OP?

Ha!  (Have to say, I'm more of a vanilla/butterscotch guy myself.)

Hi Tom, speaking of DC dining scenes, the furthest away from that seems to be government agency/organization's cafeterias! Some of us are excited about the food options, and some would only consider getting food in the cafeteria as a last resort. How can these cafeterias be part of what makes DC's dining scene unique? What would you say are the more memorable cafeterias you've visited (if any)?

I'm impressed with much of what I've seen at both Mitsitam (in the Native American museum) and Sweet Home Cafe (in the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture). I admire how the menus at both have been, like everything else in the museums, curated by experts.


That's a wrap for this morning, gang. Thanks for a lively hour. Let's do it again next Wednesday, same time.


Meanwhile, here's to a memorable Valentine's Day: Clink!

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; 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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