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

Mar 16, 2016

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 headed over to Hank's Pasta Bar this past weekend as we were intrigued by your glowing review. The line was out the door (and since there is no vestibule, nor really any place to wait) on Saturday night at 7. We tried again on Sunday night at 5, and the place was filling up fast, and was crazy crowded by 6. The food was fine, and the service was attentive, but I doubt we will be back. Why? Two reasons. I am getting tired of the "no reservations" policy. Yes, I understand that restaurants get burned by people not showing up. I'd rather give them a credit card to hold a place. The food wasn't so fabulous (unlike Little Serow or Rose's Luxury) to warrant hanging around and waiting...waiting. What's worse, I really felt like I was about to be told to empty my pockets and place everything in a plastic bin--it had a real "pack 'em in for profits" airplane vibe. I could hear everything--and I mean everything--from the tables on either side only six inches away. It was beyond lively (read noisy) and unless they remove some of the tables, I think we will stick to places such as Villa Mozart. I do wish you had mentioned the space issues in your review, but I remain a devoted reader. Thanks!

Lots to think about here, including the reality that Old Town isn't exactly bursting with good, affordable dining options and a new place happened along and it's drawing lines out the door for its good, affordable dining.

 

I can't help you with the wait times or change a restaurant's policy, but I see a possible compromise: Wouldn't it be great if Hank's Pasta Bar set aside say, a quarter of its total seating for reservation holders? At least in a sign that the restaurant cares about its clientele? I agree: the seating there is cramped. Maybe the owner could consider taking out X number of seats to give patrons a bit more personal space? It's a tough call. Fewer tables mean less money for the business (and restaurants have low profit margins to begin).

 

Good morning, gang. Contrary to what I said last week about today's chat being brief, because Sen. Al Franken invited me to judge the sixth annual hotdish contest on the Hill this morning, the event has been postponed so Franken and others on the Judiciary Committee can attend Obama's Rose Garden ceremony announcing his nominee to the Supreme Court.

 

So you have me for a full hour. Let's get started.

Tom, I was sorry to hear that Todd Kliman has left the Washingtonian and that magazine isn't replacing him. Do you think that being a food critic has a future here in D.C.?

  I reached out to Todd last night and he sent me the following email, which I'm posting with his permission:

 

"I'm leaving the magazine at the end of May. Many thanks to my readers for their passion for food, enthusiasm for exploring new tastes, and tips and feedback. I'm grateful to the Washingtonian for its support of my OtherWise column, which today was nominated for a James Beard Award. I can't say yet what's in the works, but I hope to be able to do so soon."

 

(Todd is actually being modest. He was also nominated for a second Beard Award, for distinguished writing.)

 

Do I see a future for critics in DC?  I'd like to think that what my colleagues and I are doing at the   Washington Post, what David Hagedorn is doing at Arlington and Bethesda magazines, what Jessica Sidman is doing at City Paper and what Stefanie Gans is doing at Northern Virginia all say something about how robust the dining scene is right now -- and how import the subject matter is. And let's not forget the online food community created by Don Rockwell, donrockwell.com, that gives voice to thousands of opinionated eaters in the region and beyond.

 

Good critics are curators for what's out there. And who doesn't like some help in making sense of the many ways to eat and spend money?

How to find your Fall 2015 Dining Guide online? Searching for "Dining Guide," with or without year, produces the 2012 version. Searches for "Sietsema favorites" or "best restaurants," etc. produce no results or list of Bests -- brunch, crabs, etc. Thanks!

I used my name and "2015 fall dining guide" and my collection of favorites from last year popped up with no problem. 

I live in Vienna. Where in your opinion would be a great restaurant locally or within DC to celebrate my 50th next month with my husband. I love L'Auberge but am thinking I should branch out and try somewhere new :)

Vienna, as in Virginia, right?  Near you in Fairfax, Villa Mozart is very good for refined Italian cooking in a sedate dining room. (Just hope you don't get the terse waiter I got last time I was in.) More urbane is Kinship in Shaw, from the former chef of the late, four-star CityZen. Romantic settings sound important to you. By all means, consider the luxe yacht of a venue, Fiola Mare, on the Georgetown waterfront.

Last night I got a flyer for an all-you-can eat buffet, with prime rib and seafood, for just $12.99. I assume that it would be quite terrible food, but I'm kind of tempted to try it. I know you're frequently disappointed, but how often do you go into a restaurant expecting the worst and come out pleasantly surprised? Or are you simply too busy to try anyplace that you don't expect to be good?

I always go into a restaurant hoping/praying something good will land on my table. I'm an optimistic by nature, although decades of dining out for work have obviously messed with that mindset.

 

This I know to be the case almost every time: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  I can't imagine what kind of quality you're going to get for $13. Unless you're talking about a hotel in Vegas, where some of the food is subsidized, I'm betting that buffet is no deal in the end.

 

But, hey, try it and let us know!

Restaurateurs - see above! Open a place with good food and reasonable prices (doesn't have to cheap - but I'd love to be able to have dinner and a glass of wine with my wife for $75 including tip) - WE WILL SUPPORT YOU. Gosh we're hungry over here.

I hope the right people see your post today.

Yet another confirmation of how lucky DC is to have you ... and all the other nominees.

Thank you for the kind words. The nomination, for my series on the Best American Food Cities, came as a nice surprise yesterday. (The others in my writing category are Bon Appetit and Lucky Peach.)

 

The complete list of nominees can be found here. I'm thrilled for the DC dining scene being represented by Aaron Silverman, Peter Chang, Mark Furstenberg and others.

I will be visiting with family in New Orleans Friday through Tuesday. Any suggestions for restaurants/dishes not to be missed would be appreciated. We enjoy all cuisines! Thanks, Jasper

Did you catch my salute to New Orleans in August? Scroll down the story and you'll find capsule reviews of dozens of bars, restaurants and shops. Don't miss Cure for drinks, Brennan's for breakfast, Shaya for fabulous Israeli food and Upperline for classics such as shrimp remoulade (and some of the best service in the city).

Hi. Help me out. Convivial serves something with oyster leaves. Do oysters have leaves? And the sushi place you reviewed in today's Food Section has a coffered ceiling. Maybe, just for our help, add some clauses to your sentences explaining what those things are.

My apologies. Oyster leaves refer to a plant whose leaves have a subtle briny flavor; a coffered ceiling is one that features sunken panels, usually in square shapes.

Hello Tom, even though I no longer live in DC I still love to read your chats! I was wondering if you or any readers have any suggestions for good (not super expensive) places to eat in Minneapolis? I need to go there for business in a few weeks, so thought I'd ask...no major restrictions...thanks!

Bachelor Farmer, from the Dayton brothers, just got a well-deserved nod from JBF yesterday.  And the French-inspired restaurant everyone wants to try in Minneapolis is the younger Spoon and Stable. Hope that helps, and safe travels.

Help yourself out and use google. Let Tom do his job and critique the restaurant.

I write for probably the smartest audience in the country, but I also need to remember that not everyone spends 40 hours a week or more in restaurants. I'm happy to explain, clarify and define, in other words.

That's pretty staggering, since restaurant reviewing is pretty much a staple for publications of that kind. Or is the magazine just going to hand money to random staff and ask them for their reviews?

No one said the magazine is going to discontinue reviewing restaurants. I can't imagine the publication doing that. Todd was just clarifying his role there.

Hi Tom, This happened a couple months ago. My family and I were dining at Doi Moi and in the middle of our meal the fire alarms went off, complete with the flashing lights, the blaring sirens, and an automated voice telling us not to panic. The servers quickly disseminated that the cause was a nearby garage, and not anything within the restaurant. We had thankfully ordered and received our food by then, but the noise was so painful we rapidly finished eating just so we could leave. By the time we left the alarm had been running for 30 minutes with no sign of stopping. The restaurant (meaning our server, I suppose) didn't once apologize for the interruption. It was frankly ignored. I say that it would have been a nice gesture (not required) on the part of the restaurant to provide a dessert or an appetizer to its diners for the inconvenience in addition to an apology, and my parents say since the alarm wasn't the fault of the restaurant, the gratuitous item wasn't necessary, although an apology would have been nice. Who do you think's right? -SK

By all means, the server should have acknowledged your discomfort and expressed some sympathy for the problem: Thirty minutes is a long time to eat to the accompaniment of a fire alarm.

 

I have mixed feelings about whether a blameless restaurant should provide comps in this situation, but I bet you and your fellow diners would have felt a *bit* pampered had someone walked around with shot glasses of  sparkling wine or some such -- right?

 

I'd love to get feedback from some restaurant owners on this issue. Has this ever happened to your business and how did you respond?

At a minimum, the restaurant should have apologized and offered some sympathy. I can't imagine a meal accompanied by a fire alarm for 30 minutes. No fun.

 

  While Doi  Moi wasn't to blame for the problem, it would have been a nice PR gesture for someone on staff to try to lighten the mood, with gratis shots of sparkling wine or some similar gesture.

 

I'd love to hear from restaurateurs who have encountered similar unexpected problems. How did you resolve them?

Tom, when you are dining elsewhere (Houston, Seattle, New Orleans), do you make reservations under your own name or remain incognito?

I always make reservations under other names, wherever I go. That's more important now than ever before, since the Washington Post has national aspirations. Plus, I've worked around the country -- San Francisco, Milwaukee, Seattle -- and word tends to leak out when critics land in town.

Hi Tom -- thought this was the kind of place you'd be all over. Had a very good lunch there a few weeks ago. Interesting menu and attractive space too.

So many restaurants! So little time! (On it.)

I enjoyed a rare night out Saturday catching up with a childhood friend back in town. We decided on a DC restaurant via OpenTable (and double-checked Tom's recent review). We're not foodies, but we're in a restaurant's target demographic (disposable income, will order drinks + dessert, likely to come back with hubbys in tow). Anyway, we received "just OK" service. The food was as described in the menu, the decor lovely, and the atmosphere peaceful. It should have been a great evening, but the server felt cold. Not rushed, not rude, just not giving us his best. I saw him interact with other tables (offering recommendations, smiling) and felt slighted. Our evening would have been so much better if the server would have simply smiled at us - we certainly were kind & courteous to him! I guess I just wanted to share with servers that the little things matter. We notice. Thanks for your chats.

Right on. But be careful what you wish for! At at place I'm in the process of reviewing, no fewer than EIGHT people interrupted my meal one night to see how my party liked everything -- a few times before any of us had even tried the dishes.

A couple of years ago, I was dining at Fiola with a client, when fire alarms went off. While we were assured that the cause was a small fire at an adjacent building, the alarms stayed on for at least 30 minutes (and it seemed longer). Our waiter brought us some Prosecco after the alarms ceased as a "thank you" for our patience and steadfastness.

Yet another reason to love that dreamy Italian restaurant in Penn Quarter.

Tom - Am trying to get into Momofuku on Friday night with another couple who also has kids. Time though, is at a premium since the babysitter fare is ticking. If the wait is too long, and we wanted to get something in a similar price point nearby, what would you recommend (with the exception of DBGB)? No food aversions and anything within a decent walk or cab ride is ok.

How about some pasta at the nearby Centrolina, some Asian snacks in the lounge at the Source or a menu with a Peruvian accent at Nazca Mochica in Dupont Circle?

As a former server your waiter was discriminating against you. The reason most tables with two, four or however many females do not tip as well as couples or two guys. Chances are a party of two will not run up the same tab as two dudes. Guys appetizers drinks, two bug steaks multiple sides, one will order a bottle of wine to impress his bud, dessert with a cognac or single malt. Some of this is a based in fact since it is more likely that two woman wont order the big time appetizer, multiple drinks, the cult cab and prime dry aged steaks with several side dishes. No cognac with dessert and they amy split the dessert.

Hmm. I know plenty of women who, even if they don't order a lot, tip generously. Your example sounds like a steak house scenario from the Clinton Administration. I could be wrong, but it would be careless for a server in 2016 to not treat everyone more or less the same. 

Coming from a server, I feel as though many of the people complaining about their server not smiling at them or not apologizing for an alarm is just silly and probably exaggerated. I'm sure he was more friendly to his other table because they didn't give that "disposable income" feel or entitled I deserve a dessert because there is an alarm going off . Sometimes as a guest you don't realize the vibe you put off and that it can make a server feel uncomfortable. Sorry Tom, this was more of a rant!

Rant away. That's partly why we're here (for each other). But I agree, and I've heard this from more than a few restaurant owners: Diners should walk into the dining room looking for a good time, not looking to find fault.

I apologize if you have covered this in an earlier chat, but typically how many different restaurants are you in the process of reviewing at a given time? Also, what percentage of your meals (lunches/dinners) do you eat "off the clock", i.e., not for a review? Thanks!

I eat about 10-12 meals a week for work (every night, several lunches, a brunch or two). Right now, in anticipation of my spring dining guide in May, I'm juggling about 25 different places.

An upcoming trip to Houston as a layover for my flight, where would you suggest to eat with limited time (3 hours).

Gosh, which airport are you using? Houston is a BIG market. My survey of the city has plenty of ideas, from all over the expanse.

Is this possibly a sign they recognized who you are?

Maybe, but why would a staff interrupt that often? Too much service is almost as bad as too little.

How long would you wait at a table before walking out after being ignored? You had a reservation and were seated promptly.

Five minutes? No matter how busy, a waiter really ought to make SOME contact with a diner within the first minute of being seated.

I had fortuitously made reservations for last Saturday before you review came out. What a delicious and fun place. We walked in as Chef Maupillier was saying good-bye to some friends at the door. I made a joke asking if all of us would get kisses on the cheeks on the way out. He said, "No! On the way in!" and immediately gave me some. That seemed to set the mood for the entire evening. The entire staff was friendly and fun without it seeming like Disney falseness. It just flowed naturally. The food was, of course, wonderful, but I wanted to call out a restaurant that paid attention to getting the front of the house right. Too often, good food and good staff don't always go together.

What a sweet way to acknowledge an important restaurant -- and sign off until next week. Thanks for spending some time with me, folks. Instead of eating Minnesota hotdish now, I think I'll go out and explore something new. (Where, oh where, should I go?)

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 sidewalk.com 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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