Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema discusses the DC dining scene

Mar 28, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Tom, There seems to be a serious injustice going on in DC, I'm not talking the politics on the hill. We have been to Rogue24 now 4 times, two rogue sessions and twice with Chef Cooper, once before he left for surgery and quite recently after his return. This is a world class restaurant that has never been reviewed by the Post and does not get the credit it deserves. The cutting edge, modernist food and the service standards are so much higher then Citronelle and Komi. The atmosphere is one of style, sophistication but not stuffy and snobbish as the other fine restaurants in the city. They food is much more filling and as innovative as Minibar, and with the above mentioned restaurants, you never see the chef and Chef Cooper is always there and so approachable. The city should be embracing this restaurant as Chicago did with Alinea or NYC has done with WD-50. Rogue24 is a gem and should be consider one of the greats in the area and country.

I previewed the restaurant right out of the gate, but opted to wait longer than I usually would to fully review Rogue 24 for a number of reasons, chiefly because I wanted to make sure the chef would return to the stove (and fortunately, he has). 


The Post has hardly ignored the modernist restaurant. My Food section colleague Tim Carman has charted its ups and downs since its inception with multiple stories and blog posts.


Good morning, everyone. It feels great to be back in the hose seat after more than a week eating my way through the north of India, starting in New Delhi and ending in Mumbai. The trip was crazy, colorful, heart-breaking, awe-inspiring, chaotic and beautiful: everything everyone who has spent time there told me it would be.


So much transpired in the short time I was away: Rasika West End made its debut. Rammy nominees were announced. The Washington Post signed to do a cookbook and Bar Pilar started serving diners again.


Let's get started.

Tom, if you start with a drink in the bar before heading to your dinner table, do you settle your tab at the bar or do you ask for the tab to be transferred? I always find that settling the tab helps the bartenders, but I have friends who consistently wish to have it transferred. Thoughts?

I prefer to get one tab for everything, so I tend to ask to have my bar bill transferred. Some restaurants are fine with that, others aren't. It varies from place to place. To keep the bar tenders happy, I generally tip them before I move into the dining room.

Hi Tom I am submitting my graduate thesis next Friday and will happen to be in San Francisco at the time for a wedding that weekend. I want to go out to celebrate with my BF for lunch since we have to be a the rehearsal dinner that evening. We eat almost everything and both really enjoy finding regionally famous or popular foods. Any suggestions for a celebratory lunch that wont totally break the bank (probably don't want to spend more than $100 total for lunch since I am still dealing with a grad students budget)? Thanks so much!

There are two places I love to find myself for lunch in San Francisco.


One is Zuni Cafe on Market St., home to one of the best hamburgers anywhere (and available only at lunch) as well as only-in-California salads and pastas. The other draw is the tiny Hog Island Oyster Co. overlooking the San Francisco bay in the Ferry Building Marketplace. Its short menu features amazing fresh seafood and great wines to match. If you go easy on the alcohol, either restaurant would suit your budget.


Congrats on the forthcoming milestone.

Hi Tom! I was recently dining with my partner, and we were surprised when our server brought us an amuse bouche. We often dine at this establishment and usually aren't treated to such things so we were very excite! Unfortunately, it contained shellfish. My partner is allergic, and I don't like it (it came to me in a dream). Anyway - at the risk of offending the server and/or the chef, I just took the stuff, hid it in my napkin, and disposed of it in the men's room. I still feel absolutely terrible (even with the touching cosolation and reassurance from my partner), but in the future do you think it might be better to just politely decline? Ciao!

If you're a regular at the establishment, you should let the staff know your preferences. Just say something like, "That amuse bouche was such a nice gesture. Unfortunately, neither of us eat seafood."  Hopefully, the kitchen has a back-up and hopefully, the server passes the information on to a manager, or otherwise records the exchange.

Hi Tom! Longtime fan here. On Sunday afternoon my husband and I are taking my in-laws to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi at the E St. Cinema followed by dinner at a sushi restaurant. But! We need to pick a restaurant. My max is $60-70 a person, which includes drinks. Where would you recommend?

Probably the most convenient of the raw fish purveyors near the theater is Kushi at 465 K St. NW.  Spring for the yellowtail, fatty tuna or Japanese horse mackerel if they're listed.  I prefer the bar overlooking the charcoal grill, or at least a table near it.

Hi Tom, My fiance and I have dinner with his parents about once a month. His father always insists on picking up the tab and we have noticed that he is a bad tipper, even with good service. My fiance has a habit of finding the waiter and slipping him/her some cash separately. Is this okay? We really don't want to insult his father, his father is not going to change, and then we don't fee like we are horribly cheap. Okay or not okay?

Perfectly fine by me (and, no doubt, the server)!

You asked a couple of weeks ago about the etiquette of using a linen table napkin as a handkerchief, since you'd seen someone do this. According to The Manor House (a book about the Edwardian Country House) in no case should the table linens be used as handkerchiefs. The person you saw should have used a linen handkerchief--or a paper tissue. I think this dictum is in part because table napkins were reused prior to launering (thus the use of identifying individual napkin rings)--something my parents discovered when they stayed at a posh hotel in Nairobi in the late 1960's...and my mother got lipstick on hers. She was upset that the lipstick stained napkin returned at subsequent meals.

Hate to say this, but the guy I saw blowing his nose into a cloth napkin was a famous chef who is frequently mentioned in this forum.

Why did you decide to review Fiola a 2nd time in less than a year?

With few exceptions (the fall dining guide comes to mind), I tend not to re-review restaurants in less than a year. But the fresh buzz surrounding around Fiola -- and the happy changes I observed since my original July 10 critique -- prompted me to reevaluate the Italian dining room from chef Fabio Trabocci for the March 18 issue of the Post Magazine.

Yeah, Tom! And how come the Post continues to ignore this great Italian place near my house? It's called Olive- something. Injustice!


Maybe you'll understand that, as tasty as the cooking is at Rasika, it's not authentic cuisine but rather a gringo/Indian hybrid. And welcome back!

Actually, what surprised me in India, in restaurants up and down the style scale, was how much the cooking resembled a lot of the Indian food  I've had here at home.

Tom: we're heading from the District to West Virginia on Saturday afternoon, ending up in a cabin nowhere close to restaurants that evening, and likely with no great desire to cook that night. However, we want our meal to be more than Popeyes (although that would be good!). From the District, anywhere along 66, what restaurant would offer something good, nicely packed, that would be make for a romantic evening meal three hours later?

I'm momentarily stumped. Chatters?

Hi, Tom! I'm a huge fan of the weekly chat and stand-by your spot on recommendations. Next week, I'm celebrating a big birthday (Danger Year, if you will) and am on a quest for the ultimate carrot cake. Can you point my fork in the right direction?

The super-moist carrot cake at The Source yields an elegant slab of 15 -- count 'em! -- alternating layers of spiced cake and cream cheese icing.

Hi Tom, Have you checked out Boundary Road yet? My SO and I went on Saturday for a late dinner. The food was good; we had the bison hanger steak and the pork chop. The steak was excellent, but the kale was so salty it was difficult to eat. My pork chop was fine, but it was set atop a pile of butternut squash and spaetzle that was really tasty. I only wish they hadn't chopped either so finely -- I think it took away from the look of the dish and was really hard to get on my fork. The prices, I thought, weren't really that fair, but that's my opinion. If they're going for the neighborhood dive vibe (metal chairs, tiny tables, lots of candles and a communal table, and exposed brick), it seems incongruous to me that you wouldn't have any entrees under $20 (there may have been one...can't recall). The toughest part was the service, though -- very hyperattentive. Our waitress literally watched us the entire time and would appear every few minutes to ask if we wanted another drink, to refill our water (three times!), light the candle, etc.. I actually saw her wait for me to put the first bite of my food in my mouth before she rushed up to the table. She meant well, and we finally asked her to stand down, but it put a damper on the evening. I've never gotten through a $100 meal (two entrees, one app, 3 drinks plus tax/tip) in 45 minutes before! Looking forward to your thoughts on the place/

 My early thoughts on the most recent restaurant to have been visited by the First Couple.

Hi Tom - We plan to celebrate my husband's 70th birthday in late May and want to go someplace really special, either in DC or close-in Northern Virginia. Another couple will be joining us, one of whom is somewhat traditional in her food tastes; the other 3 enjoy a wide variety of cuisines and preparations. We were thinking of someplace like Restaurant Eve's Tasting Room (we've never been) but are open to any and all suggestions as long as the noise level is reasonable. We were originally planning to go to the Grammercy Tavern in NY for this celebration but we decided to try something here instead. Ideas? Thanks!

Have you been to Marcel's? The West End dining room has everything you want for the night: a varied (French-themed) menu, polished service and a civilized sound level.  Equally delicious and relatively hushed is the rear dining room at Palena in Cleveland Park, with food by former White House chef Frank Ruta.

Hi Tom. I have a somewhat embarrassing situation that I'd like your help in resolving. I dined in the Bistro at Restaurant Eve on Friday night. It was a wonderful meal and the service was very good. When I woke up Saturday, I had a funny feeling that I had undertipped our server. I had my copy of the credit card receipt, however I had not written in the the tip. I reviewed my credit card statement online, and I had, in fact, undertipped by half. Normally I tip 20%, so I take 10% of the total and double it. However, I must've had a brain freeze (or the cocktail was stronger than I realized), and I forgot to double it - so I only tipped 10%. I'd like to remedy this, but this was a special meal and I won't be back to dine there soon. It's not like Starbucks where if I don't have cash for a tip I can get them "next time." I was considering stopping by this weekend with the difference in cash and speaking to a manager and seeing that my tip get to my server. What do you think? Thank you!

I've had the same happen to me before, only in Amsterdam. Fortunately,  I caught my mistake before my flight home.


Before I left the country, I wrote a short note to the restaurant, explaining the reason for the money in the sealed envelope and describing my server as best I could. I was able to drop off the letter in person, since the restaurant was close to another I was visiting. The staff was surprised by the gesture and to my relief, my waiter happened to be in the restaurant.  He didn't remember me, however, or the poort tip I gave him!

The first comment sounded like a very jaded review trying to get the restaurant's name into the chat. Whereas the restaurant is fine, I don't think it is at the same level as others mentioned ("world-class"?) I read the WP reviews on the restaurant numerous times (including this chat) and pretty much everyone agrees that it is up and down, and hasnt completely found its legs yet.

Thanks for writing. I agree that "world-class" takes time to develop.

But... if you tip the bartender when you transfer your bill, doesn't he get tipped twice? Once by you directly, and again when the server's tips are pooled? Or do you account for that somehow in the tip you put on your total bill?

What I *try* to do is pay for the drinks and leave a tip for the bar tender before I move on to my table, which means I'd be starting over, with a fresh tab.

Hi Tom, I'm actually traveling to San Fran this summer and will be staying in Union Square with my mom. Do you know any good restaurants that won't break the bank? Also, any fun bars that you would recommend in the area?

Best bar, hands down: Bar Agricole on 11th St. in SoMa.


Delicious restaurant that won't require a loan to enjoy: Flour + Water in the Mission District.


Both restaurants are contenders for James Beard awards this May, I should point out.

And I am sure the fact that they kiss your, um, ring every time you dine at Fiola, has nothing to do with how wonderful you think it is!

How would you know that, pray tell?

What about the Italian Store?

Great idea: subs to go, and good ones at that.

Hi Tom! Have you ever had dim sum at The Source? We're thinking about checking it out. Is it fusion? I don't like fusion.

I wrote about Scott Drewno's excellent dim sum, served only on Saturday, in a column on non-traditional brunches last May.

I work at a private city club in DC and am always horrified to see the top management - men who have been in hospitality for 30 years - use the linen napkins to blow and clean their noses. AT THE TABLE.

So it's not just top chefs who abuse the linen!

"The gawdawful music summons bad '80s porn." Tom, I have so many questions I don't know where to start. That said, do folks watch porn for the soundtrack? How much 80s porn did you watch and was any of it good? Nonetheless, I pledge I will use it in a sentence this week somehow, somewhere! Thanks for not taking yourself too seriously!

Ha! I used that line because every time I visited the renovated 2941, the guys at my table all looked at each other, raised their eyebrows and cracked knowing smiles.  In other words, I wasn't the only diner who thought the soundtrack sounded like an X-rated movie from my relative youth (tinny and disco-y and ... )


 But back to your questions:

 1) Probably not the part involving musical notes.


 2) Not a ton, but enough to discern the good from the bad and the ugly.

Corduroy would be another great option. The food is approachable, but surprising in its flawless execution, and it's one of the quietest dining rooms in the city.

I was a huge fan of the American restaurant, but it tasted better to me a few years ago than it does now, and the menu seems not to change much from season to season. But it's quiet, for sure.

Perhaps further than the chatter wants to go from the interstate, but I can vouch for the Locke Store in Millwood ( They have excellent food, much/most locally sourced (Polyface chicken!), and do takeout, including lunch boxes. Also, the town is adorable.

Good to know. Thanks for sharing.

Let's say I am attending a wedding next weekend and fully expect the food to be not-so-great. Near the reception site is a nice bar that has great appetizers/pub food. We are thinking of going there during the break between the wedding and the reception and eating, then pushing our food around the plate at the dinner. We invited some other guests with us, and they said our idea is rude. We aren't quite sure why it is rude: the bride and groom planned a break and we are using it to eat something that is good. How bad is that?

How long is the break, how far is the bar from the reception and is there any chance of being delayed -- or caught by the hosts?

Hi Tom, Just wanted to applaud from the gallery at your no drama, highly effective method for banishing the haters: with the truth. Their accusations are met with nothing but the truth from you, which is that no you don't favor one state/district over the other, you aren't comped, you dont hate x people, x cuisine, x price point, etc. Thank you for keeping it real and civil. You're the best!

No, *you're* the best!


I think it's important to air all sides of issues, even when I'm the subject of occasional scorn. We learn from each other here, I'd like to think.

Tom, please wake up and smell the coffee. Everyone knows that you are recognized at the finer restaurants in town and that you are given preferential treatment because of your position and influence. There is nothing wrong with getting recognized and fussed over, as long as you note it in your reviews and accolades of a place. But the only person unwilling to acknowledge this is you.

That's not true -- the part about not acknowledging that I'm sometimes recognized. I mention it fairly frequently, I think. 


But you know what? I don't take any of the buttering up I sometimes receive seriously and I take pains to get the scoop on service, sometimes sending in trusted friends to have meals in places where I know I'm fawned over. And I pay attention to more than just my own table when I dine out.


Let's use Fiola as an example. Yes, the chef's wife spent some time chatting me up when I was in, but I let readers know I thought it was a clever way for the restaurant to mask the slowness with which some dishes came to the table: a criticism.

What a shameful post by Rogue 24 Self advertising while complaining at the same time ........maybe more restaurants should sent their comments to you and hope for more undivided attention? Maybe a better write up? C' Mon....

I have no way of identifying posters. All I see is the subject line. But the missive *could* have come from a loyal customer, don't you think? 

Because the reception dinner has been paid for and is being provided to you. Not only is it rude not to eat it, it's incredibly wasteful as well. You should have said no meal when you RSVP'd. Otherwise suck it up. You're a guest.

One reader's reaction.


I do think it's a bad idea to stray too far from the reception site. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we just have to put on a smile and summon some patience. One mediocre meal isn't going to kill anybody -- trust me on that!

Tom, My husband and I would like to celebrate a big professional accomplishment at a restaurant downtown and are looking for suggestions for someplace new or recently updated. We like places like Zaytinya and Central, to give you a sense of our taste. Thank you!

They are both good restaurants, but I assume you're looking for someting different, in which case, I'd steer you to Elisir, the Italian newcomer; Jaleo, when it reopens later this week; or the aforementioned Rasika West End.

Element in Front Royal is delicious. Believe the chefs used to work at the Inn at Little Washington.

I'm intrigued!

Tom, I was the mother of the bride. The wedding was at the Ritz-Carlton. The couple & both sets of parents attended a tasting to make sure the food was delicious--and at the price we paid, it had better have been! I've been a guest at family weddings where delicious food was served in a fire hall or a church basement, usually cooked by the locals or by relatives of the couples. I am truly offended by the poster's remarks.

Thanks for your feedback.

If you're sometimes recognized, why don't you ditch anonymity so all the restaurants you review are on an even playing field?

Because I've worked hard at keeping my photograph out of the public realm and protecting my identity for more than 20 years and I don't intend to stop doing that now.


Besides, you'd be surprised at the number of places I go where I'm still not recognized.  And where I am recognized, I still get poor service on occasion -- even in some of our "finer" establishments.

come on Tom, you must have a team member or two who reviews the comments. Not everything makes it in, we all know it.

You're right: When there are sometimes 100s of comments and only an hour to chat, not every question sees the light of day. What is your point?

Honestly I would have been hurt if my guests had done that at my wedding last year. My husband and I did our level best to plan a fun evening and feed our guests to the best of our ability and budget. I mean, sure, our wedding was at Whitlow's and was not at all fancy, but it was the best we could do with the resources we had. Luckily our guests aren't jerks and were appreciative (and the loved eating pub food at a wedding, go figure.) It's like showing up for Sunday dinner in someone's home...with a Subway sandwich in your hand. Rude!

I like your reasoning. And I bet you had a blast at Whitlow's.

you have to eat the rubber chicken

Love it!

Having been to weddings with gaps of as many as 1-6 hours in between the ceremony and reception, I don't see a problem with going to a bar or restaurant for *light* meal or drinks to tide someone over until the reception. The poster's mistake was broadcasting their plan to others. As a result word may get around to the bride and groom who will likely not be thrilled. My sister's wedding had a similar kind of problem: they only served wine due to the reception hall liquor license. Some people in attendance left the reception partway through to either go to a bar or to a liquor store so they could bring back liquor and beer to drink in full view. Classy.

Again, thanks for sharing.

Maybe there's some lucky dude out there wondering why he keeps getting the red carpet treatment!


Plus now they're trying to lure the bride's other guests away. That is NOT COOL.

Wow. The original post hit a nerve. There are at least 20 other comments I could publish, but we're out of time.


Thanks for joining me today, gang. I look forward to seeing you next Wednesday at 11 a.m. Chow for now.

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 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. 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 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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