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

Feb 14, 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.

Tom, that's for doing these chats in advance. They are a highlight of my week. Anyway, just want to send a shout out to Sfoglina. My then GF and I had dinner there. Lovely dinner. Great food, and attentive service. In the gap between entree plate removal and dessert presentation, I popped the question to my GF, now fiancee (she said 'yes'). I wasn't sure I was going to do it there, so I didn't let the staff know ahead of time, but when I did, the Maitre D, came by to congratulate us and send some delicious mocktails our way. My fiancee and I plan to come back every year on that date to celebrate. Well done, Sfoglina!

Among the suggestions  I give people who want to pop the question in a restaurant is to choose a place they believe will be around for awhile (you know, so they can celebrate future anniversaries there). So, long live Sfoglina -- and your relationship, of course.

 

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone. Curious what you've got planned for today. Share away!  My little gift to you this morning is an early look at my Sunday review of Ahso, a winning new restaurant in Ashburn from former Clarity chef Jason Maddens.  Do yourself a favor and check out his handiwork.

 

Ready, set, go.

Hi Tom, Good friends of ours will be in town in May for an interment ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. They would like to have a luncheon for approximately 50 people afterwards. Could you recommend a restaurant? Preferably not too far and maybe a buffet (since most of the attendees will be driving back to Virginia Beach after lunch). Thank you

My admittedly light research on the subject turns up restaurants that are close but not very good, or restaurants that are better but less easy to access. So I'm throwing your question out to the crowd, early in the chat, and hoping for a recommendation or two by the time I sign off today. 

I know you get a lot of questions, Tom, but I hope you'll consider this one - this is my last chance as my reservation is tomorrow! My husband and I have reservations for Chiko's kitchen counter tomorrow. One thing that I'm concerned about: my husband doesn't tolerate spicy dishes very well (I could never take him to Little Serow, for example). Reading your review, I can't tell if this will be an issue. Are the dishes spicy in general, or is it just one or two? Would they be able to moderate the spice levels for him if there are a bunch of spicy dishes? I will say, we certainly don't want to be "those pains" so if this is a place we should skip - or just go and not do the Kitchen Counter - it would be good to know so I can open my reservation up to someone else. Thanks for any advice you might have!

Fear not, says Chiko co-owner Scott Drewno. Any heat on the tasting menu can be dialed back with advance notice. For the restaurant's popular brisket, for instance, the chili garnish, added just before serving, is simply left off.

We decided might as well swing for the fences today so going to Pineapple and Pearls

Oooooh. Nice!

I was gifted a special & expensive wine which likely needs to be open soon. I'd like to go out to dinner with two friends to enjoy it, and have a nice meal prepared which has the main course centered around the wine. As with all wines, there is a slight chance its sunked so if its bad I'd like to make sure the meal itself is special. We're all in our mid-thirties, willing to spend some money but not break the bank. We were thinking Corduroy, but wanted to hear your suggestions.

Corduroy near the convention center would be a lovely choice; Tom Power is a very good chef, although I wish he'd change up the menu more than he does. The shiso salad and lamb loin with creamed spinach have, just like Cher,  been around *forever.* Another option is  the nearby Kinship, where Eric Ziebold presides in the kitchen.

 

Wherever you end up, be sure to call ahead and verify the corkage fee (the cost of bringing in wine from outside).

Hi Tom, I've picked up that some of your readers struggle with how to filter good/bad info from crowd sourced reviews. My approach on this is to toss out the reviews and focus on the photos instead. I feel the photos often give a good feel for overall vibe as well as potential popular dishes and I can SEE for myself whether or not I'm interested. Who wants to read anymore anyway.

That's one way to look at reviews, but what if an awful restaurant photographs beautifully, or a wordsmith takes crappy pictures? (I'm personally wary of online critiques with more than one exclamation mark or reviewers who spell flavor flavour.)

When my parents were buried at Arlington, we held lunch (buffet) at the Officer's Club (my dad) and NCO Club (my mom -- because the O Club was booked). They didn't require that we were members. It was very easy and the staff was incredibly helpful. They do them all the time. It may not be the best food; but, it is probably the most convenient.

Sometimes, it's not about the food. This might be one of those life moments. Thank you so much for chiming in today.

We decided to celebrate a day early and had an amazing experience at Bistro Aracosia. Happy to report the food is just as good there as is their restaurant in Springfield. The service was great. We had multiple people check on us throughout the night. And the chicken and ground beef kabobs were so juicy and done just right. Kudos to them for the hospitality and the delicious food!

So smart of you to beat the crowd. And I'm pleased to get a progress report about the youthful Afghan arrival in the Palisades. It had a bumpy start.

Portofino in the Crystal City area has very nice food and a quiet banquet room downstairs. Their lunch banquets are quite reasonable.

I can't vouch for the quality of the place, but here's the link.

So no British or Commonwealth ex-pats get a chance with you? Tsk.

I might take a drubbing for saying that, but with hotels in particular, the (self-identified) Brits I've read on TripAdvisor and elsewhere seem to have lower expectations than I do.

The food is more than decent, the service is excellent, and the atmosphere is pleasantly formal. I'd go for it.

Useful to know. "More than decent" works in this case.

What's your go-to food to comfort heartbreak? (Also, thanks for being you.)

Awwww. Thank you. My favorite comforts include peanut M & Ms, which never last long in my home; Popeye's spicy chicken; Goldfish (a passion shared with Hillary Clinton) and Fritos (a fetish shared with Julia Child).

Hi Tom, love your chats! This is less of a question and more of a pet peeve-- I am a woman and I often dine out with men, either my brother or my boyfriend, or sometimes a friend who happens to be male. Almost invariably, when the check arrives, the server hands it to the man at the table. I often like to treat my younger brother, who is just beginning his career, and most of my friends and boyfriend and myself all have similar incomes and similar amount of student debt, so we tend to split things evenly or alternate paying. Even when I put my card down and the server brings the receipt back to sign, it is almost always handed to the man, even though the server must have noticed a woman's name on the card! It is always awkward, and I'm privately annoyed. Why assume that as a twenty-first century professional woman, I can't pay for my own dinner?!? Are servers trained to assume the man will always pay?

I hope not. It's 2018, after all. If a server isn't sure who should get the bill, the best thing to do is place the check in the center of the table (and hope the person paying is quick to slide the check holder in his/her direction). 

Tom, the classic sign for letting a server know that you're ready to order is closing your menu, but more and more restaurants have menus on a single page with no cover. What should I be doing to signal my server that I'm ready when I can't close the menu?

Besides stand up and scream? Or waving a scarf? My fallback is to  meet my server's eyes and raise a finger (no higher than my head, though. Otherwise, it looks like I'm a weather forecaster).

Hey Tom, Longtime reader. Our wedding anniversary is next week, I like food, but LOVE dessert - especially chocolate. Any recommendations for places in DC (that aren't too expensive (under $100 for two, only one drinker) and have great dessert?

Have you been to Buck's Fishing & Camping in Upper NW? The American menu is priced right and the desserts include a world-class chocolate cake served with fresh whipped cream. Trust me on this.

Which one, Fort McNair or Fort Myers?

Can someone please answer?

my SO and I are planning on avoiding the crowds tonight and making sushi at home! Any ideas of where to get sushi grade fish in the district?

I'd start with excellent fish shop below Ivy City Tavern in NE.

Tom, Letting you know that I threw some Fritos in a bonfire on a recent camping trip in WV and let's just say they burned very unnaturally. It made me wonder what they are doing to our insides...I've chosen not to eat any since.


"They burned very unnaturally." Uh oh. Like, how?

I've had good luck with BlackSalt. They will cut it for you sashimi style if you ask.

DOH. But of course. Thanks for reminding me/us.

And I have the opposite problem. I am female and I always get handed the check. My husband hasn't been handed a check, when we dine together, in a long time. Very odd.

Do you look like Alice Walton?

Hi Tom. I am a retired Fed who moved up near NYC, but enjoy keeping up with the DC restaurant scene by reading your chat each Wednesday. We're driving down to Baltimore for a long holiday weekend, and would appreciate recommendations for a casual steakhouse (i.e., ties or jackets NOT required). Alcohol also NOT important (we're not drinkers). We're just looking for a tasty steak dinner after one of our days of sightseeing. We're staying near BWI but will be visiting places in the Inner Harbor and elsewhere in and near the city over the weekend. Thanks!

If you want a restaurant with a DC connection, Baltimore hosts the original Prime Rib steakhouse. And if you're willing to go with a chain in Inner Harbor, I'd gravitate toward the Brazilian-themed Fogo de Chao, whose Washington branches impresses me with its roving band of steak cutters and bountiful salad bar. 

I know that how long guests get to sit at a table for dinner. I thought I'd pass on an interesting tidbit. I made a reservation through Open Table and it offered to add it to my calendar. It automatically set up the appointment for 2 hours. So, I guess that restaurant expects that diners occupy tables for roughly 2 hours.

I think the length a table is occupied also hinges on the number of occupants. Two people typically need less time than four (and so on). 

Given how much you know about the industry, have restaurants ever asked you for advice before a review (even if they never got one). I know lots of owners read this chat and take your and commenters' feedback to heart, but curious if they ever preemptively reached out to you?

Oh, sure. I'm hesitant to give out suggestions, though, except in a very general way, because in most cases, I'll be writing about their restaurants at some point, and I don't think it's my job to give direction ahead of the fact.

Tom, thanks for doing these chats. You are Godsend. Hope your 2018 is off to a good start. Based on all the great press and recs from my foodie circle, the fiancee and I decided to check out Unconventional Diner during Restaurant Week and were sadly disappointed. It was not the food, which was great. I had the Fried Chicken with the Granny Gravy and the Hot Sauce. She had the Chicken Parmesan. As a starter we had the PB&J starter. All good. I will have to make from for that fried bird to join by my faves: Alexander's, Popeye's, and Bantam King. Our problem was the service. Both the table next to us and ours experienced poor service. We had to resort to the 'wave over' once or twice, and made 'friends' with the table next to us about the long wait. It ruined the ambiance of the meal, and we skipped dessert. Got our check after the meal, and bid a hasty retreat. Anyway, I did follow your advice and write into UD the next day. I'm not one to do things in person (especially since I probably would have used my 'outdoor' voice inside). I want to congratulate them for for their gracious reply. Got apologies from both Donna Richards and Chef Deshaies about the issue. They owned it and promised to do better the next time. This is all I wanted, and I do plan to take them up on their offer to make it up to us the next time. It says something when a restaurant handles a bad situation with grace.

Thanks for taking the time to write. Let this be a lesson to restaurants to 1) put someone in charge of monitoring incoming customer communication and 2) responding as quickly as possible to the rave, rant or question. A direct and timely response is  good public relations. 

I haven’t lately seen much press regarding La Taberna del Alabardero (other than an occasional mention on this chat). It is an answer to the question: “where to go for a quiet, high end dinning experience?”. Went there on Saturday 2/10; outstanding service, excellent food (although somewhat unimaginative preparations), $190 with tip for two (limited alcohol). This used to be one of the most expensive places in the area; other venues have caught up… Of course, not “hip and trendy” nor in a vibrant part of town (at least in the evening).

Thanks for your feedback. Always good to know about good food in a quiet dining room. The veteran Spanish restaurant has a new chef in place,  Javier Cuesta, who left the St. Regis hotel in October and introduced a fresh menu in January. 

Wegmans sushi counters sell reasonably priced pieces of sushi grade salmon and tuna. Always a valentines go-to for us.

And the suggestions keep coming ...

I'd think any restaurateur worth his or her salt in this area would be a faithful reader of Tom's columns and chats, and would take hints from there.

Ha! Then why are so many DC diners sitting on such 1) hard chairs in 2) such loud dining rooms, where we're forced to 3) listen to servers' screeds and 4) share our personal space with strangers?

I understand that restaurants need to constantly clean tables and sometimes vacuum or mop the floor while open for business. But, sometimes, I feel like the staff is a little too concerned about the cleaning process that they forget people are still dining. I don't think I should have to move my feet so someone can sweep under my table (unless I pointed out something that needs to be cleaned up). I will ignore the fact that sometimes the cleaning solution smells a little too strong for people trying to enjoy the flavors of their dinner.

You have my sympathy; I got a nose-ful of what tasted like Ajax last week, just as I was biting into dinner at the fledgling Succotash downtown. Some cleaning is necessary between seatings, but it should be unobtrusive.

Hi, Tom, My husband and I will be visiting from Charleston sometime in April, but definitely on a Monday-Wednesday perhaps coinciding with our first anniversary. Any suggestions for a celebratory dinner ($200-$300 including alcohol) on those nights or any other can’t miss meals? I read your chats, but don’t think I could narrow it down...We obviously have lots of options in Charleston with the exception of really good Chinese/Indian/Middle Eastern so those would be great, but basically any type of cuisine is good (though my husband isn’t wild about Italian.) Thanks for any insight!

Happy to be of service; Charleston has fed me very well over the years. If you want something you can't find at home, let me introduce you to Arroz for Moroccan/Spanish, Bindass in Foggy Bottom for Indian street food, and Zaytinya for Middle Eastern small plates, or mezze.  If you don't mind standing in line, Little Serow in Dupont Circle, which doesn't take reservations, is excellent for zesty northern Thai cooking. 

For the poster looking to pay for her brother's meal... best way is to catch your server before the check comes and ask for it to come directly to you. I find that is best done by excusing yourself for a minute to use the facilities and instead find your server (or a manager) and let them know check comes to you.

Why didn't I think of that? You're right.

Relax- it is just the fat and dried grains burning. The same would happen with a heirloom corn husk in free range duck fat.

I suddenly feel MUCH better.

doesn't meet the OP's request - unless it no longer requires a jacket and tie on men

Ah, good point. There are so few places (anywhere in the  world) that require dressing up anymore, the detail escaped me. 

Just sayin'.

Ah, the joys of typing live, in a public forum!

Is there a polite way to ask a server to write down orders when they do not do so automatically. Especially when I am dining with a group larger than just two, I find that the serve often must return to the table to clarify the order if it was not written down and/or that something comes back wrong. This is especially true if the group has ordered multiple courses, or if there are options with each dish, or if someone had a special request. When I have asked servers to write down the order in the past they always tell me "oh, don't worry, I don't need to do that" or words to that effect. Do you have any tricks to convince them that making a note would be a better practice?

"I'm sure you have a great memory, but I'd love it if you wrote down our order."

So, I've got a date. A first date. She loves Italian food, but I don't want to break the bank. What do you think, Tom?

I think you need to book a table at Centrolina in City CenterDC and order one of chef Amy Brandwein's supernal pastas. They average $25 and include chestnut papparadelle and an occasional special of noodles fashioned from scallops and egg whites (divine).  The room is spare but handsome; the service manages the neat trick of being both polished and neighborly. Just do it. And good luck.

Hi Tom, just read your review of AhSo in Brambleton. When you were there, did you get the feeling that the place is going to stick around? As a Brambleton resident for the past 5 years, literally nothing in that space has stuck - an Italian restaurant, switched to a pizza place... The town center is kind of sad, especially considering One Loudoun up the way. I'm not sure fine dining has the ability to stick around here, but good luck to them...

I think Ahso has legs, definitely.  The chef-owner is from the area, knows the market, and more importantly, he's a serious talent. His food is definitely worth the drive from DC, if that means anything.

Why, Tom, WHY? We were trying to find a place to get a cocktail before a 5:30 reservation yesterday and went to THREE different restaurant's websites and couldn't find their hours of operation. This is critical information, especially because we were looking for a place open during that witching hour from 4 - 5:30. Why would something as critical as when the establishment is actually in operation not be prominent on their home page. So weird...

Catch that, restaurant owners and web designers?

Which past Washington-area restaurant do you miss the most?

There are so many!  Washington was a *much* more interesting dining city in decades past than some folks give it credit for being. Remember Trumpets, from then-chef, now-food scribe David Hagedorn? Or Samplings, a selection of global small plates before anyone recognized tapas or mezze? Or Federal 21, the swank downtown restaurant from chef Bob Kinkead?  And for years, Germaine's in Glover Park was *the* premier spot for Vietnamese. I could go on, but the clock is ticking and I have to sign off for today.

 

Here's wishing you all a delicious rest of the day (and week). See you next Wednesday, I hope.

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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