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

Feb 27, 2019

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.

We were recently in the SF Bay area and were surprised to see a significant percentage of diners at all types of restaurants bring their own wine. We were visiting friends and they bring wine almost every time they dine out. The restaurants don't even blink an eye and often times would take a quick look at the wine and immediately bring a decanter to the table (we were bringing some nice bottles!). I rarely see this in the DC area. Is this something that restaurants in the area discourage or just something that has not caught on with diners?

Keep in mind, California is major wine country; it makes sense that people near some of the country's finest vineyards would want to bring some liquid gold to dinner with them.

 

The Washington area counts lots of wine collectors, who I see having their wines decanted now and then in local restaurants. Such service partly explains the corkage fee  typically charged when people bring wine from home.

 

Fees vary, and some restaurants limit the number of bottles from outside. It's considered gauche, by the way,  to bring common labels, or wines the restaurant carries.

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone. Welcome to another hour of restaurant talk.  You can read my Sunday review, which looks at Reverie in Georgetown, online now. Anybody been?

 

In other news, Rasika West End has recently hired a chef to help out Vikram Sunderam, the James Beard award-winning chef there (as well as Rasika in Penn Quarter). Born in north India, Rakesh Singh comes to the property from the Westin Hyderabad Mindspace in Telangana, India. Before that, he cooked at two of London's best-known Indian establishments: Tamarind and Amaya, recognized with a star each from the Michelin Guide. You'll find some of the chef's teamwork ( scallops with coconut, ginger and green chilies; spinach dumplings with dill) on the current menu at RWE.  

 

JUST IN: The semifinalist list for chefs and restaurants from the James Beard Foundation. Especially excited to see Elle and Spoken English up for Best New Restaurant.

 

Let's get started.

Have you ever been at a restaurant the first time of your three times for a review and just decided you didn't want to review it anymore? Is there anything that makes you not do or run a review or is it once you go to a restaurant you are doing your review no matter what?

Funny you should ask. I was all prepared to write up a fairly new restaurant in the District, having eaten there with a group for a First Bite preview, only to return to a much-changed, much less appetizing business. At one point,  someone in a dirty shirt dragged a trash can from the kitchen through the dining room, which struck me as a metaphor for the restaurant in general. 

 

I also checked out a couple reader recommendations over the weekend, one of which, in Springfield, was doing middling Thai food.  Do a million people need to know about it? No, they do not.  Nor do they need to know about the inferior Balkan food I had in Alexandria. Thank goodness I have a budget to support scouting expeditions. Not all critics are so lucky.

 

Given the large audience for the Magazine, where my star-rated reviews appear, I didn't think either place, meh as they are, were worth the real estate -- or readers' time.

Hi Tom! Asking early because I'm stumped--I'm getting married in a few months and because my fiance's family is traveling from Guam I haven't met them yet and will be meeting them the night before we get married! The dinner will be thirteen folks in total, but I want it to still be kind of intimate! My first thoughts were Iron Gate...but that's where we're getting married, or the upstairs of Purple Patch....but they don't want to come to DC to eat food they eat at home! I feel like Le Dip is too loud? Can you think of a homey, intimate space that can accommodate 13 for dinner without lots of noise or that isn't too stuffy or fancy?

For this oh so important meeting of families, you'll want to be able to hear each other, of course, but you should also keep in mind where you'll be -- a world capital -- and the future: Wouldn't it be nice to find a place with enough age on it to suggest the site might be around for future reunions? I'm thinking now of the second floor of America Eats Tavern in Georgetown, the private room at Poca Madre for Mexican, the cozy communal table at Buck's Fishing & Camping, or the pasta room table at the original Sfoglina in Upper NW. Et Voila!, the charming Belgian outpost in the Palisades, has an addition you should check out, too.

You mentioned last chat you'd like screeds or raves in advance, so here goes. They have the best Indian food I've eaten in town. Anywhere. Ever. (I've been three times to India). We shared four entrees and the breads were top notch as well. Talk about mouth memory --- this place can really cook. Not much you can do about the parking problem or no delivery for take out, but the food is really really great. The staff was nice. Thanks

I regret to say, my last meal there was much different than my first, which I liked. I can no longer recommend the restaurant.

My future brother-in-law wants to take me and my fiance to a fancy dinner to celebrate our recent engagement. He says "price is no option, pick anywhere" and we think he means it. If you had one fancy (read expensive) dinner out in the DC area, where would you choose? Thanks!

What a swell-sounding BIL! Everyone I've sent to Fiola in Penn Quarter has left raving about the formal Italian restaurant by Fabio Trabocchi. That's an option. Another luxe dining destination is Pineapple and Pearls on Hill, where dinner goes for as much as $325 -- wine not included.  Outside of the District is the fabled Inn at Little Washington, which received its third Michelin star last year. That help?

What is the general etiquette for solo diners and phone use? I'm a young woman, and eat out on my own at upscale restaurants occasionally, and I am always unsure what is appropriate. I don't just want to stare at the wall, but I don't want to be rude by looking at my phone either, especially given the "screen addicted millennial" stereotype. Is it acceptable to read on a kindle or phone when dining alone, especially when waiting between courses? If not, what are more respectful ways to occupy myself?

Rare as they are for me, since a single guy can only eat so much food at a time, solo meals give me a chance to catch up on my reading, both print and online. There's nothing wrong with either activity, provided your phone light isn't blinding another diner and you respect your server by looking at them when they're speaking to you or trying to deliver a course.

 

Readers, please feel free to share other ideas for solo diners.

Tom, us dedicated readers know of your long time affinity for the roast chicken at Zuni. With your recent review of Primrose and the praise of their roast chicken, a curious reader needs to ask: Is Primrose's chicken better than Zuni?

They are two different recipes. Zuni Cafe's chicken is cooked in a wood-fired oven and served on a rustic bread salad with a vinaigrette. The bird at Primrose arrives with excellent fries and a sparkling salad. Both are very good, but my heart belongs to the West Coast signature.

Tom, my wife has a conference in New Orleans next month, and I'm tagging along. We've already booked Upperline for Saturday dinner, but I'd like to find a place for a classic Friday lunch while she's at her conference. It'd have to be a spot where I could go alone (sitting at the bar is fine), and bonus points for a place where I could get a 25 cent martini (or two or three...). We're staying on Canal Street, but I'm willing to travel. Galatoire's seems like the classic place, but don't think I want to stand in line for hours when it's just me.

You might not want to stand in line for hours, but four years after having lunched at Galatoire's on a Friday, I still rank the experience as one of my most memorable, anywhere. ( That Sazerac! Those souffle potatoes!)  Just so you know, if you're so inclined, there are folks who make a business of waiting in line for you.

 

Not your bag?  Take your appetite to Brennan's, the long-running Pascal's Manale or the contemporary  Peche Seafood Grill for a Louisiana shrimp roll.

What is the status on the Tabard Inn? The Inn was the go to place for brunch in Washington? But the Inn had owner problems a few years ago? Did the Inn ever recover from it's turmoil? I'm looking for a brunch place in that area. If not the Tabard Inn, do you have any suggestions? Thanks! Ken

I was last at the Tabard -- one of Washington's very first farm-to-table restaurants -- about a year or so ago, when I had nothing that compelled me to return, unfortunately. For brunch in Dupont Circle, your better bets are the Riggsby for duck confit hash or a "morning after" sandwich and the $42-a-grazer bottomless brunch at the Spanish-themed Boqueria on M St. NW.

Someone asked about Legal a couple of weeks ago, and Tom seemed to shrug it off. I'm from Boston, grew up dining at Legal, and have kind of overlooked it lately since there are local fish restaurants. But Legal is a truly worthy destination for seafood lovers. Both the quality of the fish and the preparations are outstanding. There's no better chowder anywhere. Legal is also a great restaurant for those with food allergies or celiac - thanks to the owner's family members' experience. If you haven't been in a while, give it a try.

I think Legal typically does a good job, too. I was simply promoting some local brands as options (and on the fly) in my response to the poster. 

Tom, I'd like to have omakase sushi for my birthday coming up. Your recent review of Nakazawa is very compelling but I have a very, *very* hard time overlooking the location. Do you think the Nakazawa omakase beats out the likes of Sushi Taro enough to help me overcome my aversion? Am I missing a hidden gem of omakase elsewhere I should consider? thank you!

Sushi Nakazawa is mostly raw fish -- 20 or so courses. I actually think there's more innovation at Sushi Taro, under the careful watch of Nobu Yamazaki. Who knew, for instance, the affinity oysters have for banana and anchovy, a startling combination that the palate ultimately green lights? 

Tom Boswell gives us close to 4 hours every chat. Why is your chat only an hour? Is your time that much more valuable? JK - But, I am curious what determines the length of these chats?

I think the time is up to the host. Sixty minutes is what my predecessor did, and I've just followed that formula since 2000. (Times flies!) I certainly get enough questions and comments to consider a longer discussion, but I also have meals to eat and deadlines to make. 

I saw your tweet, will you spill the beans on the amazing meal you had or make us sit patiently for a review?

If I wanted to spill the beans in my tweet, I would have. Sorry to be a tease, but you'll be reading about the source for my enthusiasm sooner rather than later. 

Hi Tom, My dad has put me in charge of picking a dinner spot for my mother’s birthday this Saturday night. We’re five adults and a one-year-old kiddo. I’d love to find somewhere quietish that has some healthy menu options for the guest of honor while also accommodating my picky father who prefers a meat-and-potatoes kind of place. NW DC or Bethesda are ideal, but we’re willing to go outside that area if necessary. I’m struggling, any thoughts?

Quiet and good -- and healthy -- are a lot to ask for in a restaurant these days. Your best bet at this late hour is to try to book an upstairs table at Sababa, the Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant in Cleveland Park, where some of the best dishes brim with vegetables. 

My spouse and I will be in London during our [39!] wedding anniversary this summer and would appreciate a recommendation for a special place to eat. Good food is of course the goal but we would like a distinctive experience---a restaurant that would delight as well as nourish us. Cost is a secondary consideration because we will economize elsewhere for the opportunity to do something extraordinary. Thanks!

Congratulations. If price is no object and you like Italian cooking, book at table at the world-class River Cafe. Trust me on this. The riverfront restaurant is one of my favorite places to eat. 

First off, I really enjoy your columns and this chat. I find your writing to be entertaining and your opinions usually line up with mine (I hated Founding Farmers before you wrote your now-famous review). So, this is not a criticism...but why not name the restaurant where a trash can was dragged through the dining room, or the mediocre Thai and Balkan restaurants? I understand not giving them magazine real estate, but here I think it would be appropriate here in the chat. (Especially since I frequent NOVA restaurants!) Thanks for all you do.

Sometimes, I hesitate naming certain places because I'm saving them for another forum (maybe the forthcoming spring dining guide, in the one instance). But I'll go ahead and reveal the OK Thai spot -- 9 Pad Thai, which cooks with a sweet hand -- and the even worse Old House Cosmopolitan Grill (more German than Balkan, I should have written).

I too am a female solo diner. I used to bring an actual book to read, but now with my phone/tablet, I read my Kindle. I don't worry what anyone else thinks of me, but I am almost 50 and the older you get, the less you care about what think of you. I am quiet- don't bother other diners, respectful of the servers, and don't make a mess when I eat so I figure what is the harm.

Good attitude. Like I said, as long as you're not shining a light in anyone's face, and you address the staff when they're trying to serve you, you should do as you please.

Would you mind elaborating on why you changed your opinion of Bombay Street Food? My wife and I went there in late December and we thought it was fantastic.

Everything tasted tired, or of too much pepper. It was sad, and on two visits.

Hi Mr. Sietsema, I’m a senior in high school looking for quality, counter service restaurants. Could you help me in this quest? Arlington

Happy to help. At the top of my list are Sweetgreen for salads, Chaia for healthful tacos, Chiko for delicious Chinese-Korean dishes and Nando's Peri-Peri for grilled chicken and sides. All have multiple locations. 

Just returned from a conference in San Francisco, where we managed to hit Zuni, Hog Island, Yank Sing, Heirloom Cafe, Luce, and Fringale. The latter was the favorite, I think. I moved away from DC 15 years ago, but you still have my back, Tom. Thanks.

Your post just made my day. Thanks, too, for making me a little homesick!

Hi Tom! Looking for a good place to host a brunch for 18 people in Baltimore. Private room may be best? There will be a few small children.

Chatters? I'm not up on the brunch scene there.

I would recommend adding Metier to the list of possibilities. We enjoyed a fantastic evening there last week--the entire experience was memorable. Unfortunately, that was simply not the case at the Inn a couple of weeks earlier, where the food was memorable but the service was largely forgettable. (Yes, February was an expensive month).

Yes, Metier fits the bill as well. (Can you elaborate on the service at the Inn, please?)

My husband and I have a date night coming up and we'd like to eat somewhere moderately priced in DC. We do not want pizza or small plates. Is there anything that's truly moderate (along the lines of Arties in Fairfax) in DC?

To the rescue: Tortino for Italian or Rare Tavern downtown for steak house-y fare.

Thanks to a suggestion from Tom (thank you as always!), I had a wonderful solo late lunch at the bar at Peche a couple months ago - I had the chili broth catfish, a special of the day tuna dish and a great Sazerac (not 25 cents, but certainly worth the $12 or so).

Thanks for the feedback. I don't think I can help *anyone,* anywhere, with a 25 cent Sazerac, however.

How about the new Julii or Owen's Ordinary in (north) Bethesda or Woodmont Grill in Bethesda proper?

Yes to Woodmont Grill and possibly Julii, although the latter might be tricky for six at this late date.

We've enjoyed a few dinners at Roy's in Baltimore (the local outpost of the Honolulu restaurant). Website shows it serves Sunday brunch; if it looks appealing OP could ask if there's a private room suitable for 18. See: https://www.roysrestaurant.com/locations/md/baltimore

That's a start. Thank you.

I prefer to read a magazine or paperback book when dining solo. No distractions to other diners from flashing screens, changing colors, etc.

Reading something off paper is my style, too, but have you noticed how dark some restaurants are anymore? At Mastro's, for instance, the lighting is cave-like.

My husband and I routinely use our cell phone lights to read menus these days. It's very frustrating! We can't hear each other talk and we can't read the menus. Restaurateurs, do something!!

I second that!

Gertrude's at the BMA does an excellent brunch (https://gertrudesbaltimore.com/brunch-menu). Not sure about private rooms. Also, it's not downtown, but Michael's Cafe (https://www.michaelscafe.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Brunch_Menu_Timonium_12.7.18.pdf) is a classic brunch spot in Timonium.

Reader to the rescue, yet again!

My husband will eat anything but I am rather unadventurous. How is Le Diplomat? Wish it was Tuesday for the lobster risotto listed as the daily, but it will be next Thursday. We aren’t really white tablecloth kind of people (too fussy), and we often dine at the bars of restaurants. Will we do ok here?

I like just about everything at Le Diplomate but the din. The French restaurant is painfully loud.

 

If it's bar action you're after, try Hazel on V St. NW, Estadio for Spanish small plates on 14th St. NW or Convivial for delicious French-American dishes.

Along the lines of that, I used to work for a foodservice company and a salesperson friend told me a story of him doing a favor for a restaurant customer. He delivered a 100 lb bag of dog food to him at the restaurant. Unfortunately, he delivered it at lunch time by walking it through the dining room. He never, ever did that again!

LOVE IT. Thanks for the good laugh.

Tom, my boyfriend and I are heading to Miami at the end of March (staying in South Beach but will be spending time in Wynwood as well), and would love to know if you have any "must-try" restaurants in the area. We've heard good things about 27 restaurant at the Freehand, and Yardbird of course (is it worth the hype?). Any go-tos for you (or readers)? Thanks!

If you're up for a splurge, the Surf Club Restaurant is a taste of yesteryear, reimagined for today's diner by the esteemed Thomas Keller. I'm a big fan of the Art Deco design and the oysters Rockefeller, bright with tarragon.

 

Less expensive, but just as impressive, is Ariete, in Coconut Grove, which has great service and stellar yuca fritters, fish stew, chorizo burger and more.

 

It's been awhile since I ate at Yardbird, but my last dinner there was under-whelming.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for joining me. Let's do it again next week, same time. Ciao!

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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