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

Mar 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! I never miss your chat! I was wondering how you handle situations like the recent Post story on the allegations against Mike Isabella? For example, do you feel the need to stop going to his restaurants unless and until more information comes to light? I don't want to punish all of the innocent people who work at his restaurants, but I don't feel good about going to one of his places now either. Thanks for your advice! AA

It's complicated. On the one hand, the chef has a $30 million empire with a number of noteworthy restaurants, including the recently reviewed Requin in the Wharf, and a bunch of  talented chefs and others on his payroll.

 

At the same time,  I dislike the thought of giving ink or bandwidth to anyone who has been accused of mistreating staff in the way Isabella allegedly has. My editors and I will be looking at his restaurants on a case by case basis. Might one of Isabella's establishments appear in say, a future dining guide? Possibly, but also with mention of what's transpired in his world. (Transparency and openness are paramount in all our coverage.)

 

As I said, it's complicated. We're in the news business and it's not our policy to ignore elephants in rooms. And the DC scene is not so big that we can overlook some subjects, bad players included. But we probably won't go out of our way to mention one of his restaurants, either. 

 

In other big news today, have you noticed how WHITE it is on the second day of spring?  Hard to believe, but it looks like Minnesota out my window as I type this morning.  Tell me what you're up to today, meal-wise, and send me your pressing restaurant questions. I'm all ears. And fingers. (And dreaming about Ethiopian after recent meals at Makeda in Alexandria, the subject of my Sunday review this week). 

Hi Tom, perhaps you have covered this before but what do you think is the thinking behind restaurants choosing to forgo reservations? And for restaurants that do make them, do you think they will continue to do so? I would think it's helpful in terms of planning but maybe owners and managers are getting burned too often with no shows. Thanks for these chats. I don't live in DC but it's one of my favorite places to visit. It's great to be able to keep up with what's new and what's great.

I think it depends on the size and the reputation of the establishments. Restaurants that are small and popular, like Little Serow and Bad Saint in DC, don't need to take reservations. Rain or shine (or snow or hail), they always open to lines out the door. The formula works for them, if not for diners who like to plan. I don't see that changing.  

 

P.S. I looked into the no-reservations story several years ago, when it became a big deal here. Here's the link

In addition to a wait list, they could post a spending minimum. If you agree to the minimum, you get a table right away. The minimum would go up and down as tables fill and empty.

I hadn't thought of the idea before. Readers, what do you think of surge dining? Restaurateurs, I'd love your feedback as well. First thought: it has the potential to be elitist, unfair to rank and file among us.

My partner's birthday is coming up and I would like to treat him to a very nice, set menu dinner. I'd like to stay around $200pp with wine pairings (if possible), which I think knocks out The Inn at Little Washington, Kinship, and Pineapple and Pearls. I was thinking of Komi or Sushi Taro, but I was wondering if you had ideas I might be missing? Our favorite restaurants are Tail Up Goat, Red Hen, and Maydan and we have upcoming reservations at Little Pearl and Dorjee Momo.

The beauty of the menu at Marcel's in the West End is the diner's ability to create a tasting menu according to budget and appetite, starting with several courses for $80 (pre-theater) up to seven courses for $170. The French-Belgian restaurant also comes with the bonus of relative peace and quiet. 

Do you have a pot of something bubbling on the stove?

Honestly, I have a pretty empty refrigerator and a freezer lined with emergency fuel in the form of Amy's brand palak paneer and some bricks of lasagna my partner made .. last year, maybe?

I'm a fellow midwesterner, and snow always makes me put a pot of legumes on the stove to cook all day and have with cornbread for supper. Although today I'm making it Indian, with naan, rather than ham and navy beans.

Wait, you make your own Indian bread? Do tell!

I, like you, am from south central Minnesota (shout out to the 507!), and now live in Des Moines. So, my Midwest-nice complex makes complaining about anything to my server very uncomfortable for me. I recently went out to eat at a restaurant I typically enjoy, but my roast chicken came out very dry. Dry, and thus, flavorless. The service had been a bit slow so I was hesitant to request a new entrée, lest my husband finish his meal before I get the new chicken. I wasn't really sure what remedy would have satisfied me so I ended up not mentioning it. What is one to do in this situation? Insist on a new meal, despite the potential for a long delay? Insist on having it comped? This seems excessive to me. I've been in this situation before and would love some guidance. Thanks, love reading your work!

There's a way to address problems without sacrificing your Midwestern Niceness and all it requires is a smile, a civil tone and a just-the-facts delivery.  Given the slowness of the server, I would have approached a manager: "My chicken is pretty dry and we waited a long time for it. Can you ask the chef to do it over or suggest a speedier option?" 

Ugh. I would never darken the door of any restaurant that did this. It smacks of slipping the hostess a $50 to jump the queue or get the best tseat in the house.

Thanks for chiming in. Anyone else?

Will be visiting DC soon. Can you suggest a good vegetarian restaurant, preferably one that has spicy food and good desert? Also, are there any good places around the National Mall that do not require reservations?

I have yet to try it, but Fancy Radish opened this week in the Atlas District. It's the highly anticipated vegan restaurant from the owners of the first-rate Vedge in Philadelphia. If you want to eat near the Mall but don't have a reservation, I suggest you aim for the bar at such draws as Zaytinya and Oyamel in Penn Quarter and Joselito on the Hill. 

Hi Tom - my husband and I are going on a rare date night this Saturday. We have two reservations, one that we had intended to use for drinks and some snacks at Little Pearl and then a late (9 p.m.) dinner reservation at Rose's Luxury (we got one of the gift cards with a reservation in December). Since we usually eat with our kids at about 5:30, we expect that we'll want several snacks to tide us over, but after your review of Little Pearl, I was wondering if it is appropriate for us to just order snacks and not a full meal. (For what it's worth, we'd tip well, but we don't want the restaurant or server to be miffed that we're not ordering a full meal's worth of food.) If you think Little Pearl is more for full meals and drinks, is there a nearby bar you'd recommend we go to instead? We have a babysitter from 6:30 on, so we want to make sure we pack in a lot of fun! Thanks!

One of the joys of Little Pearl is, you can make it whatever you want it to be: a quick snack with wine or a more leisurely dinner, although you should know before you go, the menu there  is brief and the food comes out fairly quickly. So if you're expecting to spend a few hours there, that's a stretch, although no one is likely to push you out. I'd be inclined to go somewhere unrelated to LP for drinks, and a bit later, but that's me.

Not the OP but we make it reasonably often. Joy of cooking has a decent recipe, and we bake it on a pizza stone. Not just like the real deal from a restaurant, but easy, tasty, and quick.

I figured tiles were involved. Thanks. 

Oops, sorry, bad prepositional phrase placement there; I don't make my own. Ganesh Brothers grocery supplies me.

Thanks for following up. 

Beyond what someone pointed out that it's akin to bribing the hostess, I also never know what I'm going to order until I sit down and look at the menu, so having to do that calculation ahead of time would take the fun out of deciding what to eat. And what if I was planning on ordering a dish that cost $20 and I'm told they're out of it, and the only other thing I want on the menu puts me under the limit? Are they going to escort me out or make me order a second drink? Waaaay too many variables to worry about.

You raise some excellent points. Let's declare the idea dead on arrival.

Tom, my father in law uses me for restaurant recommendations and usually I got it covered...however this time I am at a loss. He's on the hunt for a "fired whole snapper" entree somewhere in the DC/NOVA area. Maybe a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant? Any help please!?

Allow me to steer you to Maketto on H St. NE, where the kitchen grills the body of the fish -- sometimes red snapper, other times porgy or bronzino -- but "tempura fries" the flesh, which is served with an herb salad and a haze of fried garlic, shallots and more. The entree most recently cost $34.

I am looking for a nice restaurant to celebrate my son's graduation from college on a Thursday night in May. Some of us, including myself and my in-laws, will be coming from out of town (Seattle and Colorado). My son is graduating in Baltimore but I was thinking it would be better to pick a place closer to where his grandmother and aunt live and where we will all be staying after the ceremony. Some place in Rockville or Bethesda maybe. I've been told DC is too much of a hassle. Our group will be 7-8 and will include 3 grandparents who are 80-90 years old. All but one of us are adventurous eaters and we all appreciate good food. I'm looking for something that will be celebratory, fun but not loud, good food with potentially interesting flavors and not outrageously priced (around $50 per person). I was able to peek into Black Market in Kensington when I was visiting last week and that looked nice. I also had dinner at Kapnos and while I liked the food and the idea of sharing lots of interesting small plates and that the restaurant would plan a menu for us, I thought it was just too many strong flavors all together and a bit much by the end of the meal. Do you have any suggestions for me?

It might be a touch old-fashioned for some in your party, but the country French La Ferme in Chevy Chase has much of what you're after:  a festive air, the ability to talk without shouting, main courses averaging $30. In Rockville, the Greek-themed Mykonos Grill should be considered. It's been a few years since I've dined there, but one of the cozy dining rooms suggests a village courtyard in blue paint and white plaster, and the standards -- spanakopita, moussaka, lamb chops with toasted potatoes -- are prepared with care.

Your colleague's article on "German food" restaurants closing, made me wonder why critics and commenters put such a high value on NEW and DIFFERENT. If a restaurant has been putting out consistently good food with good service and nice ambiance, why should we care if the menu has not changed over time? I can imagine that people who eat out a LOT appreciate something new and different, but for those of us for whom eating out is an occasional treat, why shouldn't we be able to enjoy foods that are classic rather than au courant?

You get no argument from me. In fact, I got a ton of email following my review of the long-running La Ferme lately, mostly from readers who had fond memories of the place and wished I'd write more about restaurants that have been around for a long time.  I realize I am, in part, to blame for the attention lavished on the new, new, new out there. 

My birthday is coming up and I want to go out for middle eastern food. Turkish would be great but I'm flexible. DC/MD/VA all work because people will be coming from various places. Zaytinya is a possibility but what are some other options.

The dreamiest source for Middle Eastern right now is Maydan in Washington, which features an enormous hearth on its ground floor -- perfect on a day like this one -- and one of the buzziest scenes around. Go for the dips, the drinks, the fatty lamb shoulder and whole chicken. 

So would a single diner stand a good chance to get a seat by eating at the bar?

I'm inclined to think so, based on what I've seen and heard. But you still want to be on the rely-ish side.

Working from home (Falls Church) and crossing the street to Pizzeria Orso for lunch. Not only pizza, but also great salads and head-to-toes-warming soup!

Sounds like a good plan. 

What are yours? Some go for soup but today I'm thinking homemade lasagna or maybe chicken curry.

Lasagna I have (individual portions swaddled in tin foil and waiting to be defrosted). I also crave chips and cheese and chicken, which I WOULD HAVE in front of me (chicken) right now if I hadn't sent a colleague home with leftovers from dinner last night. ;)

Taking some friends to NYC for a celebratory weekend-- looking for a fun, lively atmosphere with great, interesting food but not $100 a head; prefer downtown. want fun flavors--not a steakhouse, and somewhere a group of 40 somethings will not feel out of place. any recommendations? thanks!

I keep sending readers to Empellon, the Midtown marvel featured in my most recent dispatch from New York, and they keep returning with raves.  I see tacos and margaritas in your future, in other words. 

Hi Tom! I love your chat- it’s appointment reading for me! I’m in Portland for work (heading to Screen Door for brunch on your rec!) and I had a great meal at Toro Bravo last night. However, when the bill came, there was a line for “tip” and “kitchen tip.” I’ve never seem this before! Did they want an extra tip for the kitchen? Or just for me to apportion my 20% by who I thought deserved it more? I certainly think the kitchen deserves part of the tip given the life-changing scallops they served me, but I was a bit annoyed to be asked to decide how much each got! I ended up giving 15% to the “tip” (because I’d sat at the bar and had a good conversation with the bartender) and only 5% to the kitchen...and I’m STILL thinking about who I screwed over. What should I have done?

I'm all about equality, but I hate being tasked with making math decisions as in the example above. Why not just one tip and let the restaurant figure out how it's divvied up? That said, I might have followed your example and given a token amount to the kitchen, given your friendly interaction with the bar tender who served you. It's complicated! 

Hi Tom - I have some family visiting in a few weeks who requested to eat at Farm-to-Table restaurants in the area. I feel like there are so many restaurants that do not use that term anymore, but instead focus on using local ingredients. I'd like to steer them away from FF, so would you be able to recommend some good alternatives that are not super expensive?

"Farm-to-table" is one of those phrases that gets thrown around a lot -- not always based on the evidence -- and generally refers to restaurants that source local, fresh, sustainable ingredients. Plenty of mindful restaurants do that without having to say such. Equinox led by Todd Gray comes to mind, as does Old Maryland Grill in College Park. 

In practice this already exists! In my experience, the first dozen people in line at no-reservations restaurants tend to be mostly "Task Rabbits" being paid $50 or so. This is why I don't buy the idea that no-reservations policies are "democratic"... the first choice for tables goes to people with that extra $50 to burn.

Fair point.

Because that's what more customers than not are interested in. I think German food has gone out of style because it's, well, more reflective of old-fashioned preferences. I'm up for a good German dinner myself, but if enough people had been put off by the 300 grimy teddy bears, I wouldn't be surprised if such a restaurant failed to attract a new generation.

I'm partial to good German food, having lived for a year in southern Germany in my youth. The cooking does not need to be heavy, but it's often presented as such here and outside the borders. A shame. 

Isn't this already sort of a thing with restaurants that take reservations? Either you plan ahead and book a month / two in advance or you take that available option at 4.30pm? As for elitism - well, that's already happening when people employ taskrabitters to queue for them.

I guess the difference between taking reservations (no matter how difficult or far in advance) and the idea of "surge pricing" is that you're not being charged any extra in the first instance. 

Just another way to widen the gap between the haves and the have nots. It would prevent people who want to 'splurge' on a special occasion from going to a high end restaurant with surge pricing when that surge is way more than their ability to 'splurge.'

Indeed.

Tom, 40th anniversary coming up and can't get a table at Del Mar until really late in the evening on Saturday, April 7th. What would you suggest at the Wharf or near Nationals Park (staying nearby that evening)?

They're not in quite the same fancy league, but a a table at the seafood-themed Salt Line overlooking the water,  or the chance to eat chef Haidar Karoum's international food at Chloewould both be nice places to toast your togetherness.  

On your James Beard award nomination for Feature Reporting! The article on Dishwashers was just terrific. Well deserved!

Ah, kind of you to say so.  My piece on the unsung heroes of the kitchen was the most rewarding story I worked on all last year. Nothing else came close. 

I'll be dining there tomorrow night and got one of the wine pairings with my meal. Will I end up stumbling out of the restaurant? Or will they pace the servings enough that I'll be able to keep my wits about me and drive home?

Only you know your tolerance for alcohol. And you're talking to someone who routinely relies on Uber to get home after meals with wine.  That said, the pours at Minibar are what I would call moderate (and paced appropriately). 

My SO and I will be kidless for a weekend and would like to treat ourselves to a splurge restaurant. In the past we've done the Inn at Little Washington, Komi and Rogue 24. Can you recommend the latest/greatest? Is Minibar still a great choice? Thank you!

Minibar is still all that and a bag of chips. Among other dining destinations you should consider are the posh Metier by Eric Ziebold and, further afield, the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm by Tarver King. 

Look if you're a mid-high end resturant and you don't take service it just shows that you don't care about your customers. I understand that it saves the resturant money, but then so would only washing the napkins everyother time they are used. If you can explain the difference between making me wait 45 minutes in a line to get in the door and making me wait 45 minutes to get my drink after ordering it I would be interested in hearing it. You would call out a place that made people wait 45 minutes after ordering for having crappy service, why not just say that Little Serow and Bad Saint have bad service.

Ah, but once you are IN the doors at LS and BS, the attention is friendly and first-rate -- some of the best attention, anywhere, really. 

It would be my choice, if so.

Yes, of course. Thanks for the memory jog. 

Hello Tom, As always, thank you for your delightful chats and your company in this snowy weather! Speaking of, have you heard of anyone closing down due to the storm? I have a reservation at Le Diplomate this evening around 5, but they don't open until then - with no one at home, how does a diner know if they're still open?

I think you're safe with Le Dip. It's in a neighborhood where lots of residents (and staff!) can walk to dinner or work. Readers, if you're hearing of any closures today, fill us in before we conclude the chat this morning. 

Hi Tom! I scored reservations for Tail Up Goat next Saturday and I am so excited! We are eating pretty early though (5pm) so I was wondering if you had any recommendations for places nearby to go after dinner for drinks and lounging-- anywhere we can walk in without reservations and sit for a while and enjoy some great drinks would be fantastic!! (If you have any suggestions on what not to miss at Tail Up Goat I will gladly take those as well!)

In Mount Pleasant, I'm keen on the new Elle for interesting drinks and small plates. The space and the staff are *adorable* and the chef used to work at Blue Duck Tavern.

I recently visited friends in another city and we went to a few places with oyster happy hours and it was a delight to fill up on $1 oysters. Those same friends are coming to visit me soon and I wanted to see if we have any similar $1 oyster deals and if so, where. DC, Arlington or Alexandria preferred. Thanks so much!

Head to the aforementioned Salt Line for half off local oysters (weekdays from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.) or Hank's Oyster Bar in Dupont circle, among other branches, for $1.25 oysters between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. weekdays. 

I rather the $50 go to the restaurant than the Task Rabbit.

I hear you. But Task Rabbit keeps bread on workers' tables, too, don't forget!

I'd prefer if you would pass the food through the kitchen first.

But of course! 

I would just punt and put in my standard amount and write on the bill that they should figure out the split.

My usual response as well. 

Hi Tom So, if you had to pick your ideal snow day meal or dish -- what would it be? I'm looking for inspirations right now....ideally, I'd love to head on over to Pho Viet for a steaming bowl of #11 or Northern Virginia for some shabu shabu/hot pot. Everyone has their own comfort food for a snowy day like this! What is yours?

Please tell me the new chef at the refreshed Bibiana has ribollita, that Tuscan comfort, on his menu today ....

Trying my first meal box thing from CookDC. I actually forgot that I had ordered it until they emailed this morning to say they were still making deliveries. Wild Boar ragu with polenta tonight. Just need to go out and buy a bottle of wine.

That combination sounds delicious. Let us know how you like it next week. 

You don't have to wait in a line at Little Serow. You give them your number and they text you when your table is ready. If you want to wait around and be grumpy instead of going somewhere nearby and having a drink, that's your problem.

You're right. But I'm the kind of guy who typically needs to get in (on deadline) and tends to get in line early to make sure I get a seat. 

Hi Tom- am in nyc and was planning on going to dinner at a “destination” restaurant which has a $100pp cancellation policy. With all the snow today they’re not going to be open. Shouldn’t they have to pay us $100 for canceling on us considering the travel expense and hotel charges we incurred to get here. I’m sure if it was the other way around and they were open but our car broke down they’d still charge us.

Interesting situation. What sayeth the crowd? I'm thinking it would be nice of the restaurant to give you some kind of break in the event you are able to reschedule your dinner, given the money you've shelled out (just to dine there, right?)

I just spoke with them :)

I hear Champagne corks popping (if only in my mind ...)

Restaurants - we say it all the time: update your website and for extra credit put it through your facebook feed and on your voicemail. "We are open today, Wedenesay, normal hours in spite of the storm", "we have had to close today, Wednesday, because of the storm. Sorry for the inconvenience and look forward to seeing you another time".

Timely reminder. Catch that, chefs and owners? 

Hi Tom, This weather has me in the mood for some gumbo. I've eaten at the The Warehouse in Alexandria and I've heard good things about the Pearl Diver Oyster Palace. Any other spots I should check out?

Again, my answer to a question this morning is Chloe in the Navy Yard, which makes a brassy classy gumbo for $13.

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Stay warm, eat right, be well, think good thoughts, tip generously -- and I'll see you again next week, I trust. 

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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