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

Feb 21, 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! My husband and I are returning to DC for the weekend after nearly 4 years away. The food scene has changed so much since we've been gone. If you had only one dinner in the city, where would you go? Our favorites when we left the city in 2014 included Little Serow and Rasika. We are happy to return to those, but also imagine there is somewhere else these days that is worth a try. No real limits on price, dietary requirements, etc. Thanks so much!

Just *one* dinner? The pressure!

 

Washington is an embarrassment of riches right now. I'd certainly put Tail Up Goat in increasingly delicious Adams Morgan on your itinerary. The restaurant is the handiwork of several veterans of Little Serow (and the starrier Komi).  But it's a tough ticket.  Slightly easier to access might be the beguiling Chloe, a chance to see how the Navy Yard has matured, or Unconventional Diner, with creative American cooking from the talented David Deshaies, an alumnus of the late Citronelle. 

 

Happy (glorious) Wednesday, everyone. Please get your pressing restaurant questions in by noon today. I'm off next Wednesday, Feb. 28. 

 

What's on your mind this morning? Type to me. 

Hi Tom, I enjoy reading your restaurant reviews, but I've been a little confused recently, as some of the reviews do not include star ratings. Does that mean they are actually "First Bites"? If so, please have them labeled as such on the Post's website. For example, your recent review of Marcel's was label a "review" and yet there was no star rating. What's up with that? Could you please explain the difference? Thank you!

My Wednesday previews and Sunday critiques are both labeled "reviews," and that's a design issue, not anything over which I have control, unfortunately. (I've asked!)  Anything without a star rating is therefore a preview, or un-rated First Bite. Previews also tend to be shorter, but not always.

My sister is getting married on a Sunday and the wedding party wants to take the couple out to brunch near Dupont the day before. There will be eight of us in total and are looking for something along the lines of traditional food in a fun atmosphere. Hank's Oyster bar tops most of the Dupont brunch lists, but we have two vegetarians so that isn't a good fit. Ideas?

The place you want to book is the Iron Gate Inn, which has a dreamy patio -- perfect for today -- and cozy dining room, along with a Mediterranean-influenced menu with spanakopita, open-facced tuna salad sandwich, artichoke soup and more traditional brunch fare, including fried eggs and pancakes. 

Hey Tom - Thanks for taking the time each week for these chats. I try to never miss them. I'm off to New Orleans with my wife in mid-March and want to experience the Friday lunch at Galatoire's. How important is it to sit in the downstairs dining room to get the full experience? I'm trying to figure out if it is worth standing in line or if we'll be ok making a reservation for upstairs. Thanks!

Standing in line for a shot at Galitoires for Friday lunch is part of the experience, just like in DC, where we are required to wait for the chance of a seat outside Bad Saint, Himitsu and other no-reservation dining destinations.  And just like in Washington, you can ask (pay) folks to stand in line for you if you're so inclined. 

In restaurants that serve dishes like fettuccine alfredo which is full of cream and butter, does the cook secretly water the dish down if they notice that the customer is a Middle-aged (or older) Asian?

Depending on where the kitchen is positioned,  cooks 1) are unlikely to see most of their customers and 2) probably wouldn't assume you were lactose-intolerant based on appearance alone. That information would have to be relayed by a server: "No dairy for order No. X." My question to you is, why would anyone who is unable to digest dairy ask for fettuccine al fredo?

A friend and I recently had a fabulous dinner at Marcel's--delicious, lovely food and impeccable service. But I was struck by the fact that all the waitstaff were male. There were two female hostesses, and there was one woman whose job I couldn't figure out; she wasn't in the middle of the intricate service movements swirling around the tables. But in 2018, what could possibly be the reason for having only male waiters? I'm quite sure some women would like to work at a high-end restaurant like that one!

Thanks for giving me a chance to address the recent changes at Marcel's, which already includes a makeover of the new vegetarian menu I wrote about for today's First Bite column. (The new list features a parsnip and apple bisque, an eggplant terrine with goat cheese and figs, and tortellini with wild mushrooms -- improvements over the less imaginative list I encountered.)

 

As to the make-up of the staff, which currently features a lone female (assistant manager) on the floor, I got this text message from chef-owner Robert Wiedmaier:  "Would love to have more female presence on stage!"  And yes, he's hiring. 

Tom, THANK YOU for including a review of the vegetarian offerings at Marcel's. So many times I read/see reviews of restaurants that never even touch the "vegetarian option(s)" on the menu so I have no idea if the offering(s) for veggies is just as good as the meat options or if its just a obligatory vegetarian item. Can I put in a plea for you to do more reviews that include the options that cater to those with dietary restrictions/modifications PLEASE?

Whenever possible -- usually when I find a really good meatless dish (hopefully more) -- I try to flag vegetarian selections. Not just because my editor forgoes meat, but because a lot of us like variety in our diets.

I'm a waitress, and I had a weird experience the other night. When I was filling up the water glasses at one of my tables, I overheard one of the guests complaining about women in the recent sexual harassment movement. I personally disagree with what he was saying but did not say or do anything to indicate that. Then in the middle of the sentence, he said to his friend, "See? I bet this young lady is smart enough to get it!!" and pointed to me. I just smiled and walked away because I didn't want to lie, but also couldn't really disagree with him because I needed his tip money! What should I have done?

You did the right thing, first by not reacting to the comment and then by not engaging the guest. (Did it end there, I wonder, or was the topic raised again?)

Oh boy, here we go again. Must everything in DC be PC? I can name several restaurants where all but a handful of staff are female, and could really care less.

I, too, was struck by the lack of women on the floor at Marcel's recently. (The kitchen, by the way, employs both a female senior sous chef and a female pastry chef. It's a start!)

This is the weirdest question I've ever seen in this chat. It tops the one about not tipping on the wine.

I was scratching my head when I got this and figured I'd address it as a serious question rather than hit "delete." (You should see the mix of messages I get!)

Dear Tom, All of us at Supra were sorry to hear about your reader’s experience here, namely their wait at the bar where their drinks were not comped. That was an oversight on our part, and we would like to make it up to them. That is certainly not the way we try to convey Georgian hospitality. We have already reiterated to our managers and staff that in such situations, which we are continuing to work to minimize, a round of drinks should be provided on the house. If you would post this response in the hopes of connecting us with the chatter, we would appreciate the opportunity to make it up to them. Thank you for bringing this to our attention, and thank you – in advance – for your assistance in letting us make this right. Best regards, Jonathan Nelms Owner Supra, a Georgian Feast

Thanks for following up, and for attempting to make amends. I'm happy to put the original poster in touch with you, should the party reach out to me via tom.sietsema@washpost.com. 

Hi Tom! I’m a big fan of your chat – thanks for doing this! My husband and I went to a restaurant in Philadelphia that people (you included!) have been raving about for their delicious food and drinks. I am pregnant, and since I couldn’t have anything from their extensive cocktail list, I asked the waitress if they could make anything non-alcoholic for me. She told me I could have tea or one of their sodas. I was really surprised and annoyed that a nice restaurant that has so many fancy cocktails couldn’t come up with a single mocktail! The food was great, but sipping on tea while everyone else enjoyed amazing cocktails left me unimpressed. Am I being unreasonable, or should restaurants with extensive cocktail lists be more accommodating to their customers who don’t drink alcohol?

Shame on that restaurant (and what a lazy bar tender). It's 2018, people! A lot of diners want non-alcoholic beverages on par with craft cocktails.

I interpreted this question as being from a middle-aged Asian who ordered Fettucine Alfredo since s/he is NOT lactose intolerant, but was served a watered-down version of the dish, prompting the thought that perhaps s/he had been racially-profiled by the order-taker (who in turn told the cook).

That was my thought as well (after a third reading).

Were you also struck by Little Serow's almost all female wait staff. I *think* I've been greeted by a male host, but I almost certain I've never been waited on by a man (and I've been more than a handful of times over the course of a few years). I'm not complaining, just pointing out that it goes the other way sometimes.

Yep. It's (mostly) a woman's world at my favorite Thai restaurant. The most I've ever seen there was one male server. Same guy, maybe?

Hello from across the pond! My daughter studies at Georgetown and I love to keep up with her dining adventures all the way from London. I'm surprising her for her birthday next month and want to treat her to something special. Do you have any favourite Italian restaurants that are nearby Georgetown? She raves about Filomena but I would adore taking her someplace new.

Better than the tourist trap (sorry, mum!) is Fiola Mare, with its yacht-like interior and seafood-themed Italian menu. The Georgetown venue also offers a view of the Potomac and the occasional celebrity sighting. 

Hey, Tom! Thanks for the wonderful chats and guidance. My husband and I went out for Valentine's Day at one of DC's best restaurants. Our reservation was for 8:30, and we checked in a few minutes early. About 9:00, they let us know they were experiencing some delays and provided a glass of champagne. We were finally taken down to our table an hour past our reservation time, and dishes/wine didn't make it to the table until nearly 10. We've eaten there before, and it was clear they were badly in the weeds--seasoning was all over the place, the staff seemed rushed and it was generally a weird vibe for a nice restaurant on Valentine's Day. If this was a dinner we were spending less money on, I'd be quicker to let it go--I try not to cry over bad ham sandwiches. Plus, I realize off nights happen and I'm trying to be compassionate towards them, since I'm sure their expectations for the night were also much different. But because it's a dinner where we were spending nearly a thousand dollars for two people, am I wrong for still feeling a little frustrated? I'm not even sure what I want from the establishment besides some validation that a 90-minute delay between reservation time and actually getting food isn't okay, and that giant salt rocks in food isn't okay. Had we not pre-payed for dinner, we probably would've taken our chances elsewhere after waiting for an hour.

The restaurant put you on hold for more than an hour for a meal for which you spent $1000? I'd be disappointed, too. Did you at any point address the lag with a server or manager? (You knew that was coming, right? Because the best way for turning a bad situation around is to bring it to the attention of someone in power to change it.)  Let me ask: How would you have liked the staff to resolve the matter? 

Hi Tom, thanks for chatting! My husband and I are going out for a rare weekday afternoon lunch together. Can you recommend a spot in Foggy Bottom, Georgetown, or Dupont Circle? We have no expectations other than to enjoy each other's company (without our darling kiddo, who will be at school!).

Let me give you an idea for each neighborhood: Bindaas for Indian street food in Foggy Bottom, Chez Billy Sud for bistro French in Georgetown, La Tomato for simple Italian fare and fun people watching in Dupont Circle. 

 

Speaking of La Tomate, it has a new chef, Domenico Apollaro, who opened Lupo Verde off 14th St. NW.  His new menu includes tweaks such as grilled calamari with herbed bread crumbs, saffron-flavored arancini and a veal chop with cranberry coulis. "He's just what La Tomate needs," says owner Natalina Koropoulos. "Maybe Dupont Circle, too."

Hi Tom. Please can you make PSA to restaurants (especially high-end ones) that if you serve bread and butter, please make sure that the temperature is correct. I cant tell you how many times I have been served cold bread and rock hard butter. Bread and butter are usually the first things a diner eats, and nothing sets the tone for a good meal (regardless of the class of the establishment) like warm bread. At high-end places being served cold bread and butter (especially on a cold winter night) sets a bad tone. Thanks.

Consider your plea passed along.

 

When I was eating my way through chain restaurants last year, I was intrigued with how much better even bad bread (say, the bread sticks at Olive Garden) is when warmed up.

My last few meals there have been somewhat indifferent. These days, I prefer Grill Room. Have you been since Frank Ruta left?

I have not. Do tell!

Tom--we should have listened to your advice. Never again will we make the mistake of planning a nice Valentine's Day dinner out. We thought we would stay above the fray and be in safe hands at Del Mar, a Fabio Trabocchi establishment, but as predicted, the evening ended in disappointment. The issues started when we were seated about 20 minutes past our 9pm reservation time. We understood it was a busy night, but we watched at least a few 9:15 reservations be seated before us, which was frustrating. The first course of the meal went fine, but on the second course, we watched a server try to give what looked to be our order to another table. When our neighboring table indicated the order was not for them, we tried to get the servers' attention, but he disappeared without asking us. Instead, our course was delayed 20-30 minutes after this incident. By the time we received it, the prawns were lukewarm at best. It's clear the kitchen was experiencing serious timing issues currently sequencing dishes for delivery. Queue the entrée course--we waited 20-30 minutes for this next course, and at this point, most of the food was either lukewarm or completely cold. Overall, a 4-course meal took us over 2 hours to complete, and including the delay in seating, we didn’t leave the restaurant until past 11:30. One of the waitresses did apologize for the delays, blaming the holiday and a large private party, and offered us a complementary pitcher of sangria. While we appreciated that, she then proceed to inform us that the kitchen was simply not going to be able to recover from the back-up (saying “we won’t be able to come back from this”), so the delays were going to continue. When we received the bill, nothing else, not even the cocktails we had at the start of the meal, had been comp'ed, despite the numerous delays and errors. We've emailed the restaurant about this twice and have yet to hear back. We come into Trabocchi restaurants expecting excellence, as we had always previously experienced, so we assumed if anyone could avoid the common restaurant failings on Valentine’s Day, it would be here. Unfortunately, we were wrong. And more so, it left a bad a taste in our mouth for a new restaurant we were quite excited about. Tom--you were so right.

I'm so sorry to hear this, and I'm further surprised a restaurant of this caliber -- I just gave it three stars, an "excellent" rating -- didn't 1) compensate you somehow for the service and other slips and 2) didn't follow up after you *twice* reached out to express your disappointment.

Tom, what is your opinion on slurping soup in public?

It depends on whether I'm in Seoul or Washington, eating ramen or French onion soup. In some cultures, slurping is the logical way to eat (the action helps cool hot noodles, for instance).

Tom has repeatedly preached the gospel that celebratory holidays like Valentine's Day (also New Year's Eve, Mother's Day, etc.) are excessively busy times at restaurants, where the staff is likely rushed off their feet with more customers than usual -- and that it's preferable to dine out on less-busy dates (like, say, February 13). Whenever we're going to splurge on a special meal -- admittedly at a far lower price point than the chatter's, but all things are relative -- we make sure to go on a day and at a time when the place will most likely be less busy, so we can increase the odds of better food and service.

Not only do holidays test the limits of restaurant staff, they often raise diners' expectations. The whole personality of a place can change on special occasions, and not always in a good way.

As a warning, the block of 31st Street where Chez Billy Sud is located has an on-going street project where they are digging a trench in the middle of the street. No one should drive down it

News you can use. Merci!

My husband and I got married on Valentine's Day on the theory that it would help him remember our anniversary. Not only did it not work (he forgot it the first year), we discovered the disadvantage of everybody else also wanting to go out to dinner on our anniversary. We wised up and started celebrating the day before or the day after (depending on the day of the week).

Thanks for the good laugh, and the confirmation that holidays in restaurants are best avoided in a lot of cases. (But not all! Overseas, I've spent some lovely Christmases in restaurants in Vienna and elsewhere.)

Something that happened to me recently (I'm actually not sure if I should direct this to you or Carolyn Hax?). How do you shut down a waiter that spends entirely too much time chatting at a table (not about the menu), without being generalized as someone who is rude to people in the service industry? Especially difficult when you're a dinner with someone who, while perhaps not encouraging the conversation, doesn't discourage it either. Note, offering the waiter a seat at your table doesn't work...

Avert eyes. Position your body away from the chatty server. And if those physical cues fail to stop the talker, try saying this:

 

"We don't want to keep you from other tables. And the two of us really need to finish our conversation." Smile. Pause. "Thank you."

To the disappointed Valentine's Day diner - We sincerely apologize for the experience you had at Del Mar on Valentine's Day. We would like to make a full refund of your meal and invite you back for dinner as our guest. I will take care of this reservation personally. Thank you, Jessica Botta, Director of Training and Culinary Development, jessica.botta@fabiotrabocchi.com

Whoa! Federal Express doesn't work as fast.

My husband and I had dinner recently at a restaurant you recommended in today's chat. The food and service was lovely, with one exception. We were seated near to the servers' stand and noticed that one of the servers (not ours) was coughing a lot every time he came by. He then would go right back on the floor and handle food, plates, glasses etc. Especially with flu season, it seemed irresponsible and unsanitary. We mentioned it to our own server, who apologized, but the coughing and serving continued. What should a restaurant do when servers are obviously sick but show up for work?

Say something to a manager, who can actually do something to solve the problem, in this case, send the server to a doctor or home.

Well done, Tom! Hax needs to be afraid. Very afraid.

No way. I bow to the awesome (wise, witty, fast) Ms. Hax.

Hi Tom! My birthday is coming up and there's nothing I love more than carrot cake. Do you know of any DC restaurants that offer great carrot cake?

The pastry chef at the aforementioned new Unconventional Diner does right by the crowd-pleaser, which is glossy with a carrot-colored icing.  The version at the Tavern at Rare Steak and Seafood, the subject of my Sunday review, is also pleasing, thanks partly to a center of white chocolate mousse.

Hello! Grateful for advice on dining in Bethesda...I know the area has been sadly lacking for quality restaurants, but it does seem like things are changing. Any recommendations? Thanks in advance!

I've had the best luck -- most consistent cooking -- at the mindful True Food (noisy as it is) and the Greek-themed Kapnos Kouzina. In nearby Chevy Chase, the Portuguese-inspired Tavira is always warm and welcoming. 

Hi Tom. My husband and I will be spending about 10 days in France, specifically in Lyon and Orange. It's a work trip for him and I'm tagging along for fun. I know this region is supposed to have wonderful food. Unfortunately, I have some food allergies including, most seriously, shellfish and dairy. Do you have any advice for eating well while avoiding these foods? I've found that in recent years US restaurants have become much more accommodating (and pleasant) about working around my allergies--if I'm going to a nice restaurant, I always call first to be sure they can adjust. Any advice on what I can expect in this regard in this region of France? Or any suggestions on specific restaurants that might work for us? Thanks.

I wish I could direct you to specific restaurants, but I can't. I'm happy to post any reader suggestions that might roll in before we sign off today.

 

The best thing you can do is have a French speaker who clearly understands your limitations spell out what you can't eat on a note card and hand it to a manger or server at a given restaurant. (I've used this technique abroad, in order to get the house specialties, or dishes prepared as locals would eat them versus what some restaurants think a foreigner might want.)

Hi Tom--you often say that there's no real good places to eat in Woodley Park, and recommend people either go north to Cleveland Park or south to DuPont. Do you have thoughts about Lebanese Taverna? I may be biased because Middle Eastern food is comfort food for me, but I think they have some really good dishes and think it's an affordable spot for a nice night. Plus, at the Bethesda location, they have belly dancers!

I *used* to be a fan of Lebanese Taverna, but much like Five Guys, another home-grown entity, I think the brand got worse as it expanded (too quickly). 

Hi Tom, I just went to Supra and I had a great experience. We actually arrived early for our reservations and we were seated immediately. The waitstaff were friendly, helpful, and pointed us to some really great dishes. Both my dining companion and I really enjoyed it and would recommend it.

I've given it a first look, but have yet to rate the Georgian newcomer on 11th St. NW

Tom, I appreciate these chats, but I worry you may be too effective when it comes to addressing perceived wrongs. Lately, it seems a lot of folks have been complaining about what I would call at worst a bad night - i.e., a long wait or some equal slight that hardly signifies anything of greater importance. These complaints result in an appropriate reply from you, but the restaurant then feels compelled to offer something to the complainer. As a result, I can't help but wonder if you are inadvertently soliciting complaints from folks seeking remuneration rather than addressing a bigger issue that impacts more diners. Apologies for this rant, but consider this a vote for hearing more about menus and less about wait times or personal slights.

I think about that every single complaint I get, trust me. And unless a complaint comes in early, which allows me to hear the restaurant's side of the story, I'm left with one set of facts. But some posts are more detailed than others (see above) and tend to be more believable.

I could have written that question! My birthday is this week and I too was thinking about getting a piece of carrot cake. Many will disagree, but I think the carrot cake cheesecake at Cheesecake Factory is sublime. I won't be having dinner there but plan to pick up a piece on my way home.

Thanks for the additional tip. (We don't discriminate here!)

Hi Tom, Do you take the broader state of the D.C. dining scene into account with reviews? This past weekend, I went to a new, buzzy, and well-reviewed-by-you restaurant. The food was excellent! But there were so many service problems, it put our excellent server in a really tough position: Host asked us to wait in lounge before sitting (we were on time for our res), then forgot about us - turns out our table had been ready the whole time. Bartender took 15 minutes with a beer order before finally telling the server they were out. Manager didn't tell server about 86ed dishes in advance. Kitchen pacing was glacial. We still had a great time, the food was excellent, and our server's grace made up for a lot. But it all seemed indicative of the general shortage of high-level service-industry labor in D.C. right now. Do you give restaurants a lower bar for service when there's more competition? And how do you judge a restaurant's service when the waiter is great but the others he depends on are dicey? Thanks!

 If restaurants were to charge a lower price of admission because they felt service (or other factors) weren't ready for prime time, I'd say such and take that into consideration in any critique. But since few restaurants do that (for understandable reasons), I'm not inclined to go easy on anyone. That said, I'm sympathetic to the industry I cover: Good talent is hard to find, harder to retain. 

 

That a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for joining me today. As a reminder, I'm away next week and back in the host seat again March 7.  Be well.

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: