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

Apr 11, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

I'm just now reading the April 4th chat, and was astonished by one commenter's inference that he or she expected a discount on their restaurant bill for spotting a mouse during dinner. Is that a common expectation? I could understand the individual's concern, but depending on the location of the restaurant, this is like requesting a refund when you sit outside and a bird manages to ummm...well, you know. It's just part of the deal.

I'm with you.


It's no fun spotting a rodent in a restaurant or having a bird let you know it's above you (been there!), but "stuff"  happens when you're out and about. 


I'm much more put off by dirty restrooms, chipped stemware, untrained servers  -- details that a restaurant can better control.


I wonder if the original poster would request a discount if he or she had seen the mouse in a nail salon or a dentist's office?




The first drink Gina Chersevani made for chef Jamie Leeds was at 15 Ria in 2003, years before the bar tender became MIXTRESSdc on Twitter and the chef went on to open multiple branches of Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle and Old Town Alexandria.


During an interview, Leeds asked Chersevani to make her Ria 15’s signature drink, a Blueberry Smash. Chersevani put whole fruit, mint, lemon juice and  rum in a shaker, added some ice, gave it a few shakes and poured the cocktail --- whole berries and all -- into Leeds' glass. 


“What’s this?” asked the chef after tasted the concoction, which even the bar tender deemed "terrible."


“I had a lot to learn,” concedes Chersevani, who went on to understand the importance of muddling, to become one of the region’s best-known mixologists and to develop a cult following at the bar at PS 7’s. She left that gig in February, with the idea of doing something on her own.


Instead, as announced yesterday, she and Leeds are collaborating on a third Hank’s Oyster Bar, which is expected to open in June in the old Ba Bay space at 633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.  “This is an incredible opportunity,” says Chersevani, who says she and Leeds have long wanted to work together again. For the first time, “I’m a business partner, not an employee.”


The forthcoming Hank’s Oyster Bar will feature a raw bar and a seafood theme, says Leeds, but its menu will be meatier to accommodate the Hill crowd. The liquid part of the equation will have its own name, Eddy Bar, a reference to “strong water,” says Chersevani, who also has a fresh mantra: “Swirling liquor, turbulent waters.”  


“The bar I always wanted” will be stocked with an ice box and a large block of ice, says the cocktail guru. Hank’s on the Hill is months away, but Chersevani has already whipped up some original drinks. One of them swirls together mescal, bulleit rye whiskey, citrus and liquefied salt water taffy. She’s calling it “Deadliest Catch.”


Happy Wednesday, gang. Thanks for joining me.



Tom, might you or the chatters have any dining suggestions for Quito or Guaquil in Ecuador or Panama City, Panama? Anything from five star to street food welcome!

I'll throw out your request early in the hour and keep my fingers crossed that someone will respond with some suggestions. has amazing plate-lunch grill selections; I could eat there daily. If you're on the North Shore, I still dream of the cajun ahi from the plate-lunch truck on the Kam Highway west of Waikiki - up there there's also great shave ice in Haleiwa. I miss Oahu.

Thanks for the additional restaurant tip.

After a birthday trip had to be cancelled, I am now trying to make a fun weekend at home for my fellow. The Inn at Little Washington is booked (and with the requirement for an overnight since we'll be indulging in cocktails and wine, over budget!). Is there a comparable food experience in DC / Northern VA that we could cab to? Something over-the-top delicious, adventurous, and luxurious? Would you recommend Restaurant Eve or Rouge 24? Something else? Many thanks in advance.

There's no place quite as transporting as the romantic Inn at Little Washington, where "chips and dip" translate as caviar-topped onion spread with see-through herbed potato coins, but I can think of a few  area restaurants that would be plenty entertaining for a 40th birthday celebrant.


They include, but are not limited to, the aforementioned Rogue 24 and its up-to-the-moment extravaganza of edible art;  CityZen, chef Eric Ziebold's modern temple of haute cuisine in the Mandarin-Oriental; and the formal dining room at Palena in Cleveland Park, for beautiful food that reminds me of the best of what's playng in San Francisco.


If you want to venture further out, closer to your original idea, try the Ashby Inn, which has guest rooms above the (very good and always-innovative) restaurant.

No, I'm not going to say "rodents vs. children." Rather, "rodents vs. staff who don't wash their hands and then handle the glasses/silverware/food that I will later put in my mouth." Eeeeeww!

You're preaching to the choir here. If I see one more server pick up glasses with their fingers inside those glasses, I'm going to pipe up!

Hi Tom, I would like to get your and the chatters' thoughts on this. I'm fortunate enough to have the means to eat out at least once a week. Recently, I've been going mostly to a couple of locally owned places versus spreading my dining dollars around. On the one hand, I'm just one person, and one person's patronage cannot sustain a restaurant where the profit margins are razor-thin. But on the other hand, why not deliberately support a locally owned neighborhood place, rather than a large enterprise whose owners/investors are probably wealthy and/or from out of town? Nothing personal against the Ashok Bajajes of the world, but I really feel like we should pay more attention to our neighborhood businesses. I'd love to hear what others have to say on this topic. PS I buy my groceries, etc., at chain stores!

Ashok Bajaj couldn't be more local! 


The restaurateur counts a lot of places to eat, true, but they are all scattered around the District and hardly feel like part of a chain. (I gave his latest project, Rasika West End, a taste-run in today's paper.)  If you're thinking more modest dining rooms, Bajaj's Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park certainly fits the bill.


I love the idea of supporting local purveyors. Tell me where you like to spend your dining dollars, chatters.

Tom, As a purely digital reader of the Post, lately I've been having a tough time locating your regular Sunday review, as well as telling what is a First Bite versus a full review (like I assume today's Rasika write up is a First Bite? And did you have a full review this past Sunday?) If you or your wonderful editors could enlighten us, that would be great! And Happy Wednesday.

My Magazine reviews can be found here.

My Food section previews are gathered here.

All all my work for the Post, or most of is, is in this spot.


Tom, any chance of a re-review since the new chef?

There's always the possibility of my taking a second look at previously reviewed restauants, including Le Zinc, which lost its opening chef since I last dined there. (But you don't expect me to come out and say for sure, or when, in a public forum, do you? ;) )

Tom, I can buy an $80 certificate for i Ricchi for $40. I couldn't find a review of it written by you. What are your thoughts on the restaurant? Thanks.

Honestly? I haven't been there in a long time, but it's a restaurant that pops up on my radar with some frequency, and almost always in a negative way:  Reader feedback, particularly with regard to service, is not good.

I lived in Quito for a year and loved it. There is a restaurant in the sector called El Dorado (near the Military Hospital), and it sits at the very top of a mountain and has all glass windows. You can see entire city at night, and it is really great. I can't remember the name off hand, but it is near a church that is made all of glass - also on top of that same mountain. I also really liked a low key place called Mama Clarinda's located on the border of El Mariscal, which is, admittedly, the tourist section. But, they have really good arroz con pollo and delicious llapingachos, which is a traditional potato cake dish stuffed with cheese. You can also go to Sangolqui, which is about 45 minutes outside of Quito, on the weekends and get the traditional cuy (guinea pig).

I knew one of you smarties would come to the rescue.

For a special treat, birthday or anniversary, etc., my husband & I make the trek from Olney to Artie's in Fairfax (as you know, a Great American Restaurant). I'll have filet mignon with Bernaise sauce, parmesan potatoes, chopped salad, iced tea, rolls from Best Buns, and, unless I'm too full, their amazing banana pudding. Total with tax is approximately $40. Add a tip of $10 per person, and you have a great special occasion dinner for $100 for two. That to me is a reasonable price for a special occasion. We have had wonderful meals at places like Brio, Seasons 52, and all the GAR's for under $100--usually way under. We don't drink, and neither of us enjoy wine, which does keep the price down. Anyway, that's my definition of reasonable. I'd like to hear other people's.

You can save a *lot* of money if you don't consume alcohol, for sure. I know some folks who have a drink at home before heading out to a restaurant meal, to keep their tab down.

Tom, I'm having a welcome dinner for some business associates on Sunday night in Old Town Alexandria. There will be 20-25 people and we'd prefer to have a sort of private area. Also, I need to keep the pricing as close to per diem as possible ($35.50 per person, no alcohol). I'm thinking of Gadsby's but any brilliant suggestions would be much appreciated! Thank you!

Um, you're planning to host this group on Sunday and you're just now getting around to thinking about a location?  Not to sound like your Mom, but ...


Good luck!


Some quick thoughts: Virtue Feed & Grain, Eammon's (which you'd have to buy out, I'm thinking), Hard Times, Mai Thai, Pizzeria Paradiso, RedRocks.

Tom, Can you please recommend a good Thai place in the city? We are at wits' end. Thanks.

The best is Little Serow in Dupont Circle, but it doesn't take reservations and makes no substitutions. Second-best is probably the funky Thai Xing on Florida Ave. NW, which also requires some extra patience. 


Chatters, feel free to weigh in with your favorites.

I was just in New Orleans, and loved it. I went to Restaurant August (which was amazing). Do you have any Cajun restaurants here that you recommend and what is your favorite place to eat in that foodie mecca?

This is where I ate the last time I visited New Orleans. If only time pemitted more meals there!

That particular spot is bad luck (at least to me). I've been in Capitol Hill for four years and have already seen 2 or 3 restaurants in that space. Do you think Hanks Oyster Bar will do well there?

Actually, the spot is a great one. Ba Bay never did it for me, food-wise. Locanda, which preceded the Vietnamese restaurant, had management issues.

My 8 year old and I are coming to DC next week for a mother-daughter spring break trip. Where should we go to eat, for "normal" dinners as well as for one special splurge? She's open to interesting food, as long as it's not "too spicy". Thanks!

Try the revamped Jaleo (Spanish tapas, lots of choices) for something special near the Mall and Seventh Hill Pizza on the Hill and Standard in Logan Circle for casual meals that will also show you other parts of the city.

Have you had a chance to check out La Forchetta yet? Despite the chef's previous boondoggles, I'm interested in giving it a try.

Funny, I was there just last night. But you'll have to wait until my next First Bite column, which appears in print in Food on Wednesday, to see what I think in these early days for the Italian restaurant near American University.

Hi Tom, Do you think the Cleveland Park Tacklebox will really come back after Mike Isabella's pop-up? We were so very excited when it opened last year, but it has gradually fallen in quality. Reduced hours, very reduced menu, confusing set-up, reduced quality all around. We are mourning it already but hopeful that the owners will make some changes so it can become a success. We loved the raw bar for instance. From the regular menu, some of the prices were high, especially when the quality dropped. The beet salad was inedibly salty one time, and the fries were just sad. Please bring back the quality -- even with a smaller menu. Your neighbors really want you to succeed!

Paging Jonathan Umbel! Paging Jonathan Umbel!

Tom, I thought your reader who mentioned that her book club was reading (and enjoying it seemed) Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir might be interested in knowing that she'll be in town in early May participating as one of the chefs at the American Heart Association fundraiser, Heart's Delight. Information can be found here if people are interested: by the way - I've attended this event in the past and it's a blast.

Thanks for the info. (The poster is referring to a reader question published in last week's Dining column.)

A La Lucia on Madison would be a possibility, suspect that they could come close to the $35 per person. . They do have a private room. Bistro Lafayette, may or may not have a private room upstairs.

Thanks for adding to our list. I hope the aspiring host is on the phone by now!

I'd also throw in Overwood, O'Connells (lots of little rooms) and TJ Stones (which has a private room). But for that big of a group, I'd start calling now. And the per diem will be difficult to hit.

More choices. Thanks.

I don't enjoy seeing the waitstaff of a well known steak house on 17th Street spending a lot of time smoking out front and then going back in to wait tables reeking of cigarette smoke.

Or waiters with dirty fingernails!

I enjoy Bua at 17th & P. They also do a very nice job with takeout and at reasonable prices.

Haven't been in years.

Tom: As someone who hasn't had a drink in 25 years, I'm always stunned at the cost of liquor in restaurants today. If my girlfriend has two Old Fashioneds before dinner it's going to add about $25 to the bill, even if the restaurant is pretty modest and she says "Rail bourbon is fine." Since I remember the $3 cocktail, it makes me feel like Rip Van Winkle.

I can't tell you how many times "let's meet for drinks" turns into a triple digit bill, give or take a snack to accompany cocktails for two.

I like Spices up in Cleveland Park.

It's not as consistent as it once was, but Spices is still nice to know about if you're in the hood and want something light.

I have to admit two of my favorites are Floriana and Hank's Oyster Bar, which is just around the corner. I never fail to enjoy treating myself to a meal at either and always find a gracious welcome and great food at reasonably reasonable prices. They're the best in the 17th St. strip, along with Johnny Monis' Komi and Little Serow.

Floriana is indeed a local treat. Jamie Leeds made some changes at her original seafood eatery after I re-reviewed it last fall, and I haven't been back to dine there.

What's good at Old Ebbit these days? Anyone been recently?

You can always count on good oysters at the bar there. Beyond that, the food is iffy.

I like the Jackson 20. Their new chef is great and the one bartender (dude with long hair) makes awesome cocktails!!

The original poster can't complain he's getting no help from us this morning, can he? Thanks.

We once had a waiter in a fairly elegant restaurant who didn't seem to have showered for a week. Worse than cigarette smoke. And I can't believe the manager hadn't said anything to him.

There's a restaurateur in town who is doing his restaurant -- well, his clientele -- a serious disfavor by wearing cologne that pretty much demands everyone's attention when he roams the dining room. 


Not sure what's worse!

Read your review of the newly revamped 2941 and just want to share our experience. We celebrated a birthday there and loved a lot of the food we had. The cheese ravioli with cured duck was divine, as was the veal special. However my entree of duck had confit stuffed spring rolls and some really sad chard greens. The plate was too busy and lacked flavor/texture at the same time. I hope they will replace that dish with something else for the spring menu. We ordered the eclair with rosemary cream and pineapple for dessert mostly because it just sounded so odd as a concept but OMG every element on the plate worked together. One of the best desserts I had for a long time. We received excellent service and overall it was a very enjoyable evening. We will definitely return often in the future. Tasting menu experiences are fun but 2941 now offers a great lunch/dinner spot for when we want thoughtful delicious seasonal local food but don't feel like dressing up so much. The chef should put more pasta dishes on the menu.

Sounds as if you and I liked many of the same dishes, including the cheese ravioli, which was flagged in a photograph accompanying the review, and the pineapple dessert.  But I think the new space looks weird, and the cooking isn't as consistent as it was even just a year ago.

Aside from Thai X-ing my favorite is Regent on 18th Street. Was one of the first to get away from the bright neon interiors and use more elegant wood and muted tones. Loved the time when I saw the waiter go outside and pick peppers off the plants on the front patio to use the cooking.

That was a stand-by for me as well for years, for just the reasons you list. The restaurant showed real care in its cooking and setting. But I think it has seen better days.

I have a local little place that I love. The food is good, and I love to run into my neighbors out and about in the neighborhood - something that didn't happen a few short years ago. But the service at my little place, never great, has been getting worse and worse. The owner can manage the kitchen or the floor, but is trying to do both at once and not succeeding. I've mentioned it to her, with specific examples, but the fact is, her staff doesn't seem to want to improve, and is fine when she's watching, and atrocious when she's not. They are friendly enough, but slow, and quick to blame things that they mess up on her. (I've worked restaurants. I know who controls what.) Now I find myself wondering when I give up. And I don't want to give up, because I do like the food a lot. Any thoughts on how to make this plain to her? Any comments for restauranteurs on how to avoid this?

You can be 1) selfish, stay mum and just order carryout from the restaurant or 2) pen a note detailing your affection but also your problems with the restaurant, and slip it to the owner at a non-busy time.


Restaurant owners and chefs, how would you like the news delivered to you?  We're curious.

If she's open to interesting, you might consider one of DC's Ethiopian restaurants. Other good options if you're staying in Virginia are Ray's to the Third (of the Ray's the Steaks empire, but with cheaper options and really good fried chicken) or the Pho place across the street from Ray's (blanking on the name, sorry!)

I was thinking Ethiopian, too, but the caveat about avoiding anything "spicy" made me hesitate to throw a suggestion out there. The best in the area is Ethiopic on H St. NE.

Tom, for the first time in my life, my upcoming milestone birthday is scaring me. I don't live anywhere near the DC area but was raised there many, MANY years ago and am a faithful reader of this chat and your reviews, in spite of the fact that you have never answered one of my questions (I understand - I am but a small fish in a large sea). I would love to actually see how you experience a restaurant. The next time I am in the DC area, would it be possible to join you at a restaurant so I could actually watch how you do it? I think it would be fascinating to see how you take in all the things that I (and I hope, many others) tend to overlook while spending a night out.

Ha! While I'm not "rentable," I do contribute to a handful of charities each year, usually by extending an invitation for two (or so) strangers to join me on a review.  It's been a blast, meeting people from different backgrounds and at the same time supporting worthy (mostly food-related) causes. 


I'm not opposed to the idea -- I continue to add new faces to my large list of dining companions (Hi, Alex!) -- but I like to know a bit more about people before I sit down to break bread with them.

I have never read that you make or made a comment regarding a dirty restroom. Did I miss that take from you?

I've mentioned messy restrooms before, certainly in this forum (but less in the Magazine). I think the condition of  the facility speaks volumes about the restaurant in general.


But one issue at a time. My chief  concern regards -- no surprise to regular readers -- noise levels in restaurants.

Tom, when someone is letting their children be disruptive (unless it's Chucky E Cheese), do you recommend speaking to the parents or to the management?

Management first. The complaint should center on  safety concerns rather than "those kids are driving me nuts."

It was initially supposed to be 5-7 people but things sort of snowballed this morning. I'm talking to Virtue right now thank you so much no idea why I didn't think of them!

Whew! God luck.

I'd toss in Fast Gourmet and Lincoln.

Fast Gourmet would be fun for a quick lunch. Lincoln has some nice food, but the noise keeps me from recommending the restaurant. My ears bleed after a meal there!


It's (after) noon. Time to eat! See you back here next week at 11 a.m. Thanks for your time and attention.

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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