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

Apr 04, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hi Tom, I'm going on a blind date next week. Any suggestions for a fun place to grab a glass of wine and have a conversation without having to shout at one another? If things go well, we may grab dinner as well. Thanks!

Ah, there are lots of places to consider: the bar at Bibiana downtown, the bar at Cork in Logan Circle (which has a new chef, by the way), the counter at Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan, even the lounge at Rogue 24, where, it turns out, you don't have to spend hours and hours eating tiny art statements but where it's possible to drop by for a cocktail and bite to eat up front if you wish. That last idea should score you big points with your date. Very insider-y!


Happy Wednesday, gang. Thanks for joining me on this awesome spring day. On with da show!

Hi Tom, I enjoyed your review of Evening Star cafe and wondered if while you were out in Del Ray you had tried any other restaurants that you'd recommend?

Evening Star Cafe is a real charmer.  Except for a few visits to the unfortunate Pork Barrel BBQ, I haven't spent much time in Del Ray of late, although I've had pleasant meals in the past at Taqueria Poblano.  Not long ago, I checked out the Shirlington offshoot of Cheesestique in Shirlington and thought it was middling at best. I certainly didn't have anything there that would compel me to trying the original cheese and wine storefront.

Tom, do you or the chatters have recommendations for Honolulu/Oahu? I'm taking a short trip there next month and am looking for places at various price points. Thanks!

Anyone know the islands better than I do? Please speak up.

Hi Tom, I am not as knowledgable about spots downtown - I am meeting a friend who is a vegetarian and in town for a conference near Dupont. We are both pretty adventurous as food goes, but need to stay in the 15-20 dollar per person (per entree) range. She lives in Asia so wants to take a break from that cuisine while here. We wouldn't want to leave to city but the location is less important than the cuisine. Any suggestions?

You don't have to leave the city to find what you want. Nor do you have to stray from Dupont Circle, home to the charming Greek-themed Mourayo and a host of options for the diner who doesn't eat meat: cheese pie, roasted eggplant, squash keftedes and more.

While I do not disagree with your evaluation (April 1) of Blue 44, I was surprised at your characterization of our neighborhood. Putting aside the restaurants on Connecticut below Nebraska Ave, like Buck's and Jake's, a closer look out the window of Blue 44 would have revealed several other places to engage our appetites. They include the ancient Parthenon right across the street from Blue 44, as well as the really popular American City Diner, a Bread and Chocolate, the newish Tien Tien Fang, and the reliable Arugula. It is good to have Blue 44 as an additional option but the other places seem to be doing well. Now if someone would just open a French bistro in the Chevy Chase Arcade space......

I took some heat from readers living near Chevy Chase Circle for typing in that review that "Other than a Starbucks, a bagel shop and the Chevy Chase Lounge, there's little to engage residents' appetites" -- which is true, even counting the Greek place, which isn't very good, and the other spots you mention.  There's simply not much there, and that which exists, including Arucola, aren't quality dining destinations in my book.  (I should also point out that in the review, I was talking about what I could see from my table in the front window, the three places I mentioned. )


In my defense, I hear from a lot of readers up that way who don't care for the food that's being offered there.

Hi, Tom! On a recent visit to a DC restaurant I saw a mouse scurry by our table. I notified the waitress but was not sure what more I should do. As timing would have it, we did not see the rodent until after 3/4 of our meals were complete. What is the proper way to handle this type of situation?

You did the right thing: bring the mouse to the attention of a manager.


I know it's an unpleasant sight -- I can still recall the rat the size of a cat I saw scurry through a dining room in Adams Morgan years after it happened -- but I'm not sure there's much a restaurant can do, then, to remedy the concern (other than track it down and chase it out the door with a broom, which would totally unnerve the rest of the customers, right?)

Hi Tom, First, thanks so much for your work. I have had many great meals, based on your recommendations, and I'm sure have missed some not so great ones. I'm a fan. I had dinner recently in a very expensive "tasting room" in one of your favorite Alexandria hot spots. When the bill arrived it was noted as "special promotional event" or something like that, and the cost of one of two meals was removed from the total. I had no idea such a special pricing was being offered, nor did my dining companion. I have two questions. 1) How would you have handled this, pay it or ask for an explanation and an upward adjustment if it was a mistake, and 2) how does one find great deals like this?

I need more details. Did you not ask what the promotion was and just pay the tab? My initial reaction would be to over-tip on such a deal (if, in fact you liked the experience).

Tom! I'm the chatter who wrote in 2-3 weeks ago about a projected dinner at the Inn at Little Washington. We went this past weekend, and followed your recommendations (specialty cocktails, lamb carpaccio, dessert in the garden) assiduously, and had an experience that was every bit as special as you led us to expect. The staff doesn't always get the attention and praise that they deserve, but let me say that they were precise, efficient, helpful -- and charming. I believe I said in my original email that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing ... now I'm reconsidering ...

Thanks for the feedback. I'm so happy your experience lived up to the lofty expectations. Once you get a taste of the Inn at Little Washington, it's hard not to think of it as more than a one-time thrill.

Hey Tom, Looking for a good Italian place for Saturday night with my parents. In the past we've eaten at Al Tiramisu, Bibiana, Equinox and BlackSalt -- obviously the last two not being Italian. They like traditional Italian so something like Elisir won't appeal. So trying to decide between Posto, Potenza and Siroc. Appreciate your thoughts.

May I steer you instead to the Italian-influenced Palena in Cleveland Park, where Frank Ruta and company turn out some of the best pastas in the city, or the more formal Tosca downtown, which makes a superlative risotto and very good grilled fish?  Both are better choices than the names on your list there. (Just sayin'!)

We are moving to DC after living for 30 years in the land of Chez Panisse. My limited experience of DC restaurants is that they are overly fancy and overly fussy, that just great creative food in a casual atmosphere with moderate prices is just not done. Please tell me I'm wrong!

As much as I love the Bay Area food scene, which I once covered for the San Francisco Chronicle, I think Washington has much to recommend it as a place to dine these days.


Check out my most recent fall dining guide for some inspiration and be sure to put on your list newcomers Little Serow for amazing Thai, Mintwood Place for lusty French-American fare and Rasika West End for Indian as you've never experienced it in San Francisco.

Here are the parameters- A birthday dinner for around $100 total for two. My wife is pregnant with our next child so we will not be getting a bottle of wine in that total. We are looking for someplace with a pleasant vibe/feel like Anglers Inn (not your favorite), Ferme (a bit pricey)- maybe something newer/trendy (Lincoln, Graffiato)? We want some place that is nice enough that we get to enjoy ourselves and eat, talk, people watch but it does not need to be the Greatest Meal Since the Advent of Sliced Bread! Thanks!

Gotcha, but I imagine you also want to be able to hear yourselves talk, which rules out both Lincoln and Graffiato. In today's Food section, I wrote about the transformation of Lima into Fujimar, which has some delicious non-sushi selections on its menu and is a very pleasant place to spend a few hours.

I went to Jaleo on Saturday to see the new space as I have always been a huge fan and did agree the old space seemed tired. The food was still good (I think I have to disagree with a lot of commenters on this point) however the service was horrible. We sat at the bar and had to keep flagging down people to get water refills and to check on the status of a missing tapas that took 75 minutes to get to us. I alerted the staff to my unhappiness but they were not apologetic and I wrote an email to the manager but have heard back. It is amazing how a quick "I am sorry, we screwed up" would have fixed everything. Especially since this has always been my go to restaurant. Tom, how do you react when one of your favorites messes up? Do you forgive and go back?

Well, I have the chance to air my complaints (and share my praise) in a public forum.


On occasion, however, if something is really bad, I bring it to the attention of a waiter or a supervisor in part to gauge how they right wrongs, but also to improve the experience for the next diner. If something is woefully oversalted, or if a wine is off, I'll definitely flag the restaurant.


Keep in mind, I seldom go to a restaurant just once. I visit places at least three times for starred reviews in the Magazine. Those return visits usually help distinguish one-time mistakes from on-going flaws in a restaurant.

Rodent control in action!

One way to solve the problem, for sure, but I'm not sure how diners with cat allergies would feel about seeing a feline in the house. (But maybe better than a rat?)

Is it legal/kosher under the DC health code to bring your dog inside a dining establishment? I type this as I watch someone cuddling their lapdog inside a Starbucks. Ick! Also, I'm seriously allergic. What's your take?

I think pets belong outside restaurants. That's what patios are for, right?

really liked District Commons and its neighbor BTS at 23rd and Penn, have you checked out their 10 PM special where they serve up loads to staff and friends?

I have yet to visit District Commons that late for a meal, but I love the idea of getting to try what the restaurant staff eats. Does anyone here have any experience with the menu?

Just go to the manager/cashier/whomever and ask them to address the situation. Once they know of the presence, they are on notice that their establishment is allowing a code violation. It's usually not a good idea to mention it to the human end of the cuddles ... let the employees deal.

Yep. It's the restaurant's job to handle such situations.

You consider Rasika and Little Serow 'moderately' priced?

I had lunch at Rasika West End the other day and the bill for two (without booze, including gratuity) was $74 -- under the poster's stated budget. As for Little Serow, provided you watch what you drink, you can get in for just over $100 -- a bargain, considering the quality and the parade of thrilling dishes.

Try any of the shrimp trucks on Oahu's North Shore (it's hard to go wrong, really). In Honolulu itself, take The Bus to the Bishop Museum stop, and take a little side trip to Helena's for great Hawaiian food (pipikaula ribs and luau are a must for me!). There is also a nice "Eat the Street" festival on the last Tuesday of every month where food trucks line up in downtown Honolulu and you can hop from truck to truck. Oh! And Shave ice from Aoki's or Matsumoto's in Haleiwa on the North Shore. Tons of great places in Honolulu (Leonard's for Malasadas, Liliha Bakery for coco puffs, Alan Wong's for the tasting menu, so much more). It all depends on what you're looking for, really.

A wealth of great ideas. Thanks.

Hi Tom, I used to live in DC and will be visiting again soon and Siroc was high on my list to go to, it was always my favorite Italian in the city (and although I like a bar as much as anyone, the lack of one there did give it a slightly different feel that I appreciated). Below Palena I could maybe see but below Tosca, really? (I will change my plans if so, as I did like Tosca as well.)

Siroc is not as exciting as when it opened, I'm sorry to report, and I base that sentiment on a recent visit.

Have you been to Bistro La Bonne? I'm always surprised it doesn't get much attention, considering the food compares quite favorably to a number of DC's restaurant darlings...

It's been two years since I last ate at the French bistro. I remember big portions, good meat dishes (including steak frites and lamb chops) and deafening noise levels.

The best food is usually the cheapest. Ted's Bakery is a cheap spot to get a plate lunch of delicious garlic shrimp or teriyaki. The surfers hang out and talk about the swells. Another good option is the gas station / supermarket just beyond the turtle bay resort, where you can get fresh Poke (a Hawaiian dish of cubed sashimi tuna tossed in light soy or teriyaki, onion and chilies). It's pretty cheap, and fantastic.

More good advice. Thanks for chiming in.

"My initial reaction would be to over-tip on such a deal" I thought this was a good opportunity to remind your readers that the tip should always be based on the menu price before any deals or discounts, not the actual check total. I know you know that, Tom, but I wanted to bring it up because it seems even people who should know better often don't.

From your lips to the Internet!

Tom, you suggested it's inadvisable to allow dogs inside restaurants due to customers' allergies. Well, I'm allergic to children, but no one is willing to accommodate my allergy! Hrumph!

And here I thought we could get through the hour without some rant about little diners!

This may seem like an odd question, but do you ever make your way up to Wheaton, MD for a meal? There are some surprisingly great meals to be had in that (unfortunately far from DC) neck of the woods. Dusit, Mi La Cay, and Nava Thai are a couple of favorites. And El Pollo Rico of course!

I sure do (travel all over for my job)! Haven't been to Wheaton much recently, but I've made my way to the Wine Kitchen in Frederick, Eastern Kabob & Sweet in Germantown and Jewel Of India in Silver Spring, the subject of mt April 29 dining column. Plus, I've made several trips in the lat few weeks to Md in advance of the spring dining guide -- with mixed results, I'm sorry to say.

Sigh. I am your biggest champion, but am always disappointed when you talk prices. Saying $100 is a bargain is fine, and I love knowing where to go for those kinds of things, but please, please get it out of your head that that's moderately priced for most people.

 Short response to an issue that deserves more time: This is a market brimming with two-income earners and people with advanced degrees. There is a ton of money out there, and I see evidence of that every day in Washington's restaurants. So I guess one person's "bargain" is another diner's "splurge."  But I hear you, and I *do* keep price in mind as I decide what to cover in Food, the Magazine and elsewhere.

Scientists have proven a dog's mouth is cleaner than a human's mouth. Chances the dog ahs an accident rarer then having some one change their spawn's diaper on the the table. Hey my collie girl has a black Amex and she can calculate the tip before tax quicker then my bro a CPA with PWC

Is your dog free for dinner tonight? My date just cancelled.

Sounds right. The best advice I ever got was on a forum when I asked where to eat in San Diego. "For the best Mexican, go to any taco stand whose name ends in '-berto's." Sure enough, the resident friend took us to Rigoberto's taco stand, and it was wonderful.

Love it!

The dogs I've encountered in restaurants have better manners than many humans: no talking loudly on cell phones or disgusting eating habits. The dogs usually set quietly & don't disturb.

My dog eats very, very quickly, but he refrains from using a phone during meal times, which I always appreciate.

I have nut allergies. Am I out of luck for little serow knowing it's a set menu?

Little Serow makes it clear from the start that the kithen does not make substitutions or alter its dishes.  Maybe you could skip the course that includes nuts (or is even the presence of nuts across the table a concern)?

Does the set menu at Little Serow mean I, as a vegetarian, will never have the opportunity to try their food? I find that extremely disappointing.

Alas, I'm afraid so.

Tom, I'm starting to feel like the same old restaurants keep coming up every chat over and over. Yet in the area I live I notice a number of places that seem to have been open for a long time that never come up. I'm guessing their not "destination" places but they can't be all bad to have enough loyal customers to stay open that long. So I'm curious - do any of these places serve a solid enough dish or two to warrant a visit?: Tempo, L'Auberge Hermitage, Il Porto, Landini Brothers?

That's a trip down memory lane for some of us. I'm not against re-reviewing any of them (stay tuned for that spring guide I've referenced, in which I return to previously reviewed places) but there's been such a torrent of new places on the scene I'd be remiss not to cover them. Make sense?

I would prefer to be in a restaurant with five well behaved dogs than one ill-behaved small child.

Okay then!

People would be appalled at the, um, rodent life in the alleys and back roadways of restaurants that staff, departing well after midnight typcally have to negotiate to get home.


The frustrating part was I did bring up my unhappiness with the wait for food and service and I got no response, from either the waiters at the time or the manager to my email.

Not good. Bad, Jaleo! Bad, bad, bad.

You must check out, Town, just outside of downtown Honolulu in Kaimuki. Great neighborhood restaurant with an emphasis on fresh, local produce and nice atmosphere.

And in the nick of time.

Tom, a note of thanks for your elegant prose. In my estimation, you and Judith Martin are the most engaging WaPo writers.

God bless you!

$74 for lunch is WAY TOO MUCH, especially "without booze." I think $40 is plenty for lunch for two: $10-$12 entrees, $3 soda, tea, or coffee, and $10 tip. Your "moderate" is expensive for my husband & me. We had a meal with our adult daughter at a local IHOP on Senior Citizens' Monday and paid $22, which included a $7 tip to our server.

Thanks for putting "moderate" in perspective.

tom, I don't think Alexandria was asking you to review those restaurants, just that the oldies but goodies never come up when someone says I'd like Italian in Old Town.

Gotcha. I don't like to recommend placesthat I haven't been to in at least a year, though.


Sorry to leave so many questions and comments unanswered today, gang, but I'm off to tape some TV spots (off camera, of course). Have a four-star remainder of the week and let's regroup next Wednesday.

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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