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

Mar 20, 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.

On which basis do you rate each restaurant in your reviews? They seem arbitrary, where you describe a good restaurant but give a 1.5. Any insight?

Can you tell me which restaurant you're referencing? I haven't  given any subject a satisfactory-to-good rating since January.

 

Briefly, what I aim to do is to compare apples to apples: French bistros with French bistros, Italian trattorias with Italian trattorias, sushi joints with sushi joints, etc.  Food counts for roughly half the rating, service and ambience for the rest. In all honesty, I'd rather grade low and have readers think me miserly than grade high and have them think of me as over-generous.

 

Happy Wednesday, gang.  It feels good to be back in the host seat and participate in another chat. I missed your questions  last week.

 

After a reader complained in this forum about the hospitality at Reverie, I heard from chef-owner Johnny Spero, who writes:

 

"We’re happy to hear that some of our dishes were so well received by your chatters, such as the hake, and understand that others may not be to their or your taste. There’s always room to disagree and room for improvement. But the one thing we certainly agree with is that poor service is unacceptable. Creating a welcoming experience for every guest is vitally important to us and we'll discuss our failure to offer that in this incidence with our management and staff. Our aim is to have every guest feel taken care of and satisfied with the overall value of their meal and experience. We’d love the opportunity to apologize and remedy the situation with your chatter if they’re willing to provide contact information."

 

If the original poster sees this, here's a chance to give the restaurant another opportunity.

 

Have you been to Rooster & Owl yet? It's the subject of my Dining column in the magazine this Sunday, but online now. I was unfamiliar with the chef going in; now that I've eaten at his debut restaurant a few times, I can't wait to eat Yuan Tang's exciting food again. 

 

Got a question? Rave or rant? Talk to me. 

We are a small non-profit and want to have an informal networking happy hour after our first day of panels. Everyone will pay their own tabs. Probably 30 people. Everywhere I call has $2000-3000 minimums to reserve space and wants us to serve food. Why is it so hard to reserve a space for people to gather like this? (been having this problem for years) Would love suggestions! Near National Archives, Penn Quarter, End of April meeting. Thanks in advance!

I'm going to throw this question out to the crowd and see what folks come up with -- hopefully based on experience. If there's a restaurant that would welcome the business, let's hear from you, too. 

Hello and a good day to you Sir. Asking early as I'll be unavailable during the chat. This Friday I will have a rare (and much needed) day off of work, and would like to enjoy an memorable lunch somewhere in the DMV area. Location is not too much of a problem for me as I have a vehicle and am not averse to taking public transportation. Alcohol not required, though bonus points for anything under the radar or off the beaten path. I'd appreciate your recommendations. Thanks.

Places I've enjoyed some memorable lunches in the past year include Centrolina (Italian) in CityCenter ... Bombay Club (Indian) downtown .... the new Mama Chang (home-style Chinese) in Fairfax ... Woodward Table (at the bar in particular) near the White House ... and the fledgling Pembroke (American) in the Dupont Circle hotel. That help? 

My wife and I will be celebrating our 10th anniversary at the Hay-Adams hotel and want a restaurant recommendation that's either a walk or short uber ride. We want a place with a nice atmosphere, somewhat quiet, and will let us enjoy the meal at our own pace. We love steaks and don't want a menu where we have to Google half of the descriptions. Thank you.

Not far from where you're staying is the pleasantly old-fashioned Rare Steak and Seafood, an import from Wisconsin outfitted with gleaming wood walls and roomy burgundy leather booths. I can vouch for the dry-aged Kansas City strip steak and the tangy key lime pie, among other selections.

Hi Tom, I am planning on proposing to my girlfriend in a couple of months while visiting Seattle. I used to live in the city, but it's been a few years. Any recommendations on a restaurant for a celebratory occasion? We are open to any type of cuisine. Thanks!

The place that leaps to mind out there is the mid-century modern Canlis. The menu salutes the Pacific Northwest and the water views are dreamy. Do it! And best of luck.

Hi Tom, Your mention of menus without prices makes me wonder, do any restaurants actually still use these? Not for handing to the female occupants of a table (ugh!), but perhaps by request from someone hosting a group? It would save said host the trouble of ordering the most expensive item on the menu (like it or not) to put their guests at ease.

I know of no restaurant that offers menus without prices, but if that's what you're looking for, it wouldn't hurt to ask; printing menus is easy for restaurants.

Looking for a round table or even better a booth for 8 people for my birthday dinner. We are on Capitol Hill but open to Wharf, downtown, H Street, anywhere we can Uber. Good drinks and food, I like farm to table or new American but mostly looking for a table where we can all talk to each other.

The French-American Convivial in Shaw has a fetching alcove that seats up to 10. The chef-owner, Cedric Maupillier, is one of the most innovative in Washington. I'd love to have him cook for my birthday. Another option is the chef's table at the delicious, Belgian-themed Et Voila! in the Palisades, where I've hosted several birthday parties on my own dime (for what it's worth). 

A friend is planning a drive from our downtown apartments to the VA countryside...specifically Clifton... for a day. Are there any good eats out there? Or should we drive through some place on our way?

That's easy: Trummer's on Main is where you want to book. It's about eight miles from Fairfax, right in historic Clifton.

Any can't-miss restaurants in Vancouver? We're headed up there for the first time for a much-needed vacation in late May. It will be our first time leaving our toddler, so we'd love to secure someplace special that didn't have many little ones running around. Love the chats, Tom! A highlight of my week, even if we're in a home bound stage for the next couple of years.

It's been forever since I've been to Vancouver. Chatters?

The reason you've had trouble is you want a dedicated space and not pay for it. The restaurant/bar cannot give you a cpace and not charge. What if everyone ordered the cheapest drink, or half ordered tap water, they wouldn't make any money. By guaranteeing the space with a fee you are making sure you get what you want and the restuarant/bar makes money. If they opened the space up to wak in traffic they will probably make the same, if not more money. Just saying. And with margins so thin, they have no choice but to charge for the space and they have to make sure the have enough servers, etc. . . . Non profit or not, everyone has to pay to play. If you just show up somewhere with a bar, you will get what you want without having to pay for it, but you won't get the same level of service. If you're looking for space and service, you've got to pay for it.

You're right, but there's got to be a place with space that won't charge a group thousands of dollars for the real estate (and service).

Tom - I lived in DC 6 years ago until I escaped to California. While I was still in DC I had my 30th birthday and took my closest friends out for dinner at Citronelle. I’m going to be back in DC the day after my 40th birthday and would like to go out again with friends. Do you have any recommendations for 8?

Citronelle for your 30th, huh? (Sigh). Boy, do I miss Michel Richard, its brilliant overseer. Lucky you to have savored the trail-blazing restaurant when it and the star of the show were around. 

 

Since you've been away, the Washington dining scene has changed in a big way. Among the leading lights at the moment are the Spanish-themed Del Mar from Fabio Trabocchi (a chance to see how the Wharf has changed); the Dabney, a love letter to the Mid-Atlantic in Blagden Alley; and Rose's Luxury on Capitol Hill, which has a cool private room on its second floor.

 

 

What would be your recommendation for a fun night out with top quality food... I only have two weeks to organize so I'm afraid reservations will be difficult. Also, any recommendations for pre-dinner cocktails? Thanks!

Please, don't be so vague. The more detail, the better. This post is *exactly* why so many questions don't get addressed in this forum.

 

To the original poster: What's the size of your group? Your budget? Where are you hoping to celebrate? What do you like? I'd love to assist, but I need more info. 

Bread!! How many time asking for complimentary bread is okay?

As in a single visit? I guess it depends on what size basket and what kind of bread you're taking about. Can you give me an example?

What's your favorite place for a more upscale meal in Old Town these days?

I know I sound like a broken record, but the long-running, modern American  Vermilion is probably your best bet.  For Japanese, I'm partial to the shoebox known as Nasime, which serves a five-course tasting menu (only).

I recently dined at Bad Saint, which was wonderful and definitely worth the trip/obsession over getting a res. However, I ordered a beer with my meal (from Burley Oak, nonetheless). I am quite the craft beer fanatic and was saddened once the beer arrived to see the canned date on the beer was bumping up on two months ago. The beer definitely tasted older and had lost its freshness. Should I have said something, or was I being too picky?

It bothered you enough to write to me, so yes, you should have pointed out the issue. I'm not a huge beer drinker, but I believe canned and bottled suds are good for between six to  nine months after their expiration dates.

Tom, I wrote in a few weeks ago to ask for brunch recommendations near BWI, and thanks to a chatter, we had a terrific brunch at Willy's in Ferndale. I just wanted to say thanks!

Great to hear. This discussion wouldn't be nearly as helpful without the help of participants.

You recently answered a question about teas in the DC area. Strathmore has an ongoing series of afternoon teas. Info: https://www.strathmore.org/events-and-tickets/afternoon-tea

Thanks for sharing. 

Hello Tom! So I'm looking for a good seafood restaurant in DC or suburbs that takes reservations and that is under $30 a plate. I'm celebrating my daughter's 16th birthday, and if possible, she really enjoys scallops. Mocktails or a variety of nonalcoholic drinks aren't necessary, but would be wonderful. Thanks so much!

Elle in Mt. Pleasant takes reservations and serves a mean dish of scallops on fried black rice with XO sauce, but it also happens to be small and one of the hottest tickets in town. Easier to access is the Salt Line on the southeast waterfront, which counts a couple scallop dishes, including a fried seafood platter (for exactly $30, but enough to share).

visiting for the first time this week. any menu items you would describe as not to be missed?

Lucky you. Amy Brandwein is an ace chef. I'd spring for a pasta and something from the wood-burning oven: pappardelle served with a sage-scented white bolognese and either whole branzino or suckling pig.

Our favorite neighborhood bistro writes the specials on a chalkboard, with an abbreviated description, and the prices are listed as well. The server stands at the table with the chalkboard, explains the specials fully, and there is the price in clear display.

Sounds like a great way to please 1) those of us who want to know the cost of specials and 2) those who prefer not to waste paper on daily specials out of concern for the environment. 

An out of town friend who is game for anything and another friend whose idea of a great meal is a filet mignon and potatoes (no other vegetables please). I'm stumped. Definitely no asian food for the choosy eater. Where should we dine for a special meal without boring the adventurous eater?

One of the charms of Unconventional Diner near the convention center is that a conservative eater can slice into  steak and eggs or  a top-notch meatloaf (did I just type that? I did!) and the gastronaut in the group can explore kale nachos and a ropa vieja built from pork shoulder and basmati rice. Trust me on this.

Ethiopic has been my go-to in the past but the last time I was there everything was just flavorless. Where you I take an out-of-towner for good Ethiopian food?

These days, I'm partial to Zenebech, a family-run restaurant in Adams Morgan. Count me a fan of the crackling lentil turnovers, the spiced raw beef known as kitfo and the fact the place comes stocked with a bar.

Might I recommend Pesce in DC? Their chalkboard menu changes with what is in season but they almost always have (delicious) scallops on offer. IT's one of the first restaurants we were introduced to when we moved here and every time we go the seafood is still amazing, interesting, and reasonable, the service charming and helpful.

Thank you for the memory jog. I need to get back there. Pesce has long been a good source for fish. (No surprise, given the name, right?)

A few years ago I helped to organize some happy hours — places I checked out included Cafe Citron and Big Hunt (for both, ask about their upstairs), Shaw Tavern (likewise ask about upstairs), Buffalo Billards and Bier Baron (for both, ask about their back room downstairs). Other options are massive warehouse-sized bars like Penn Social, Franklin Hall, etc. In general, early in the week is going to be a lot easier than later in the week, and 15 people is going to be a lot easier than 30. When you think about it, you rarely have the FULL number of people all there SIMULTANEOUSLY — some people get there early, some show up late, and people leave at different times. So when you call, give a ballpark for the number of simultaneous guests. Also, it's going to be a lot easier to do this on a Monday or a Tuesay. Even if you can't find a dedicated space, in a place that has light traffic early in the week (e.g. a big bar that isn't doing trivia that night), you'll likely be able to colonize an area and take it over even if they don't have a sign put up that the space is "reserved." Since everyone's paying their own tab, you'll probably prefer it that way.

I want you to plan my next event. (Thank you for the guidance.)

Hi Tom - ate at Officina last night and it seemed very off from reviews on both service (super slow and unattentive) and food (bland). It seemed like they had a big event upstairs so not sure if it was an off night or if you're hearing similar reports. I'm supposed to take my parents there on Sunday, but don't know if I want to risk the same experience. Anywhere you'd suggest as an alternative? We're already doing Le Dip, Masseria, and Fiola Mare. Thanks!

Hate to say it, but I'm hearing mixed reports about the multi-concept Italian fixture from diners, too.

 

You've got a *lot* of Italian on your dining schedule. I'd be inclined to swap in a different cuisine. How about modern Mexican at Poca Madre? Spanish at the just-launched Boqueria in Penn Quarter? (Just bring ear plugs.) Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan for enticing American with a southern lilt?

Maybe too far afield for the poster, but Lost and Found by the convention center has a big back room. They don't serve food so that won't be an issue. Don't know if they have a fee or minimum, but it's a nice space.

You readers are a wealth of information.

Come visit Casolare in Glover Park -- we have happy hour 7 days a week from 3-7 and will HAPPILY (with no fees) host you and your group !! I know it's not exactly your desired location but hey .. we're worth the trip!

No fees?  Awesome. Thanks for raising your hand, Casolare.

Bardo Brewing Bardo is available for private functions and fundraisers. Large and Small. With no charge for the space

But wait, there's more!

For a retail store or restaurant, I think within 2 months of the canned date is more than reasonable. You can't expect brewery freshness with general distribution. For an IPA, > 6 months seems on the old side.

Thanks for chiming in.

Went to Vancouver a few years ago and really enjoyed both L'Abattoir and Bao Bei. Had high hopes for Hawksworth but was disappointed by the experience.

And just before we sign off!

I was wondering if you have a recommendation for a great lunch spot to celebrate a Birthday. Any neighborhood and food type, just a special spot with great food!

See above.

My husband and I are moving back to DC after 7 years in NYC. Where should we start catching up on all that has opened while we've been gone?

Welcome home! I guess it depends on where you left off seven years ago -- and what you enjoyed then. If you're looking for places to make you feel good to be back, at the top of your list should be the always-interesting  Tail Up Goat in Adams Morgan (be sure to get something from the bread course); Little Pearl, a charming wine bar and cafe from Aaron Silverman and company; the beguiling Chloe in Southeast; and Karma Modern Indian for such luscious dishes as roast baby goat with turnip greens and spinach.

 

This seems like a good place to sign off. Thanks for spending part of your Wednesday with me and let's meet again next week, same time.

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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