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

Apr 18, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

In this past weekend's review, you did not give the person responsible for the exclamation point-worthy boudin credit for his work. According to the DCist article earlier this year, and their website, the gentleman you overlooked indeed makes all the cooked charcuterie and single handedly does all the whole animal butchery for the retail case, offering 40 different cuts, many of which are not found in any of the areas very few butcher shops. How do you do your fact check and are you accountable?

Yes, I fact-check my columns and yes, I'm accountable for what I write. So here goes:


Before submitting my review of Society Fair, I spoke with four principals at the new Alexandria market/bakery/butcher shop/wine bar.  One of the details  I asked about involved ownership and who was responsible for what aspect of the operation; as anyone who has been to the food emporium knows, it has lots of moving parts. I reconfirmed that one of the partners -- and the head of the meat program -- is chef Dan Fisher, a long-time associate of co-owner Cathal Armstrong's.  In my review, I praised the boudin blanc, writing,  "thank you, butcher Fisher!"


Mr. Fisher did not make personally the sausage. His associate, Julien Shapiro, an alumnus of Palena, did.  This was brought to my attention after the review went online.


If I could do the column over again, I probably would have given Shapiro the shout-out, although there were already lots of names in the piece. The reality is, there are also a lot of other people doing good work at Society Fair who went unheralded in the critique (through no fault of anyone's).


Bottom line: I like to give credit where credit is due. And I'm sorry to have (unintentionally) overlooked a chef.


Happy Wednesday, gang, and welcome to another 60 minutes of restaurant talk.  I'm away from this forum next week, but I'll be back again May 2 -- just before the Beard Awards in New York!


Let's begin.


Hi Tom, I was on Todd Kliman's chat last week, and read that he caught a diner impersonating you so the restaurant would give him a good meal. Does that kind of thing happen often? And what can you do to stop it?

Every other year or so, I hear about someone pretending to be me, but ... for real?   I would hope area restaurant owners know that I never make a reservation in my own name, nor would I announce myself to staff.  Ever.

Have you noticed latey a flurry of waiters (and it's always men) who want to shake hands when they first come to the table? My husband and I are "regulars" at several restaurants where our regular waiters always want to shake our hands before they bring us anything to eat or drink. Of course we shake, it would feel too weird not to, but is this really proper? We try to be friendly and always tip well, but we are not really friends with them. We just want our food. Am I being snobbish or are out waiters pushing the boundries a little too far?

If the behavior really bothers you, enlist the support of a manager and let him know that as much as you like the food and ambience at your regular haunt(s), the hand-shaking is unnecessary -- indeed, unwelcome. Say this with a smile and hope the message gets passed along.


For the record, I'm OK with hand-shaking staff, although I think both of us should wash our hands before we return to serving or eating, respectively.





Am I missing something? All the website has is links to e-mail or make a reservation. No hours, menu or photos available. At least they have an address and phone number easily visible.

For sure, you can't fault the new Italian restaurant, starring Roberto Donna in the kitchen, for  being too distractive online (which is the usual gripe from consumers searching for dining info).

Hi Tom- I'm heading to Johnny's Half Shell tonight with a large group. You haven't mentioned it lately. Is it OK? Is there anything we should be sure to try (or avoid)? Thanks!

I last dined at the seafood joint on the Hill  in November and recall a clumsy salad, gray duck with (better) sour cherries, dry catfish served atop chewy risotto -- everything washed back with a terrific Sazerac (go figure) and finished with a very nice apple dessert served with true-tasting vanilla ice cream.

Tom, where can I find poutine in the area? I have a craving. I live in Falls Church/work in Fairfax, so in Virginia is great, but I'll travel for poutine.

My colleague and restaurant producer Justin Rude says the "disco fries" served at ChurchKey in Logan Circle come close to what you are after.


In Arlington, the new Green Pig sells poutine, but I have yet to try either the restaurant or its gravy- and cheese-topped french fries.

The last time I went to Buck's Fishing and Camping the hostess was smoking a cigarette right outside of the restaurant. Although the restaurant was basically empty, my party waited to be seated in the restaurant's entryway for several minutes while the hostess puffed away outside. When the hostess was finally finished with her cigarette, she came in, reeking of smoke, and seated us. During our meal the hostess and the server sat outside of the restaurant smoking and chatting with a friend. It was an unpleasant experience and I'll never return to the restaurant. It's a shame because Buck's is a neighborhood joint for us and I'd really like a reason to frequent this place.

While I wouldn't drop a worthy restaurant from my rotation just because of  a puffing hostess, I don't think it looks good for staff to be outside an establishment,  not doing their job, or smelling of something a lot of people find offensive.  Wonder where her manager was?

Have you tried the lobster rolls at the Hamilton? I am a Maine native and always looking for real, no-fuss lobster rolls (Luke's has them too btw) and was impressed when I first had the lobster rolls at the Hamilton. I thought they'd be all foo-fooy with spices it didn't need, with lettuce it shouldn't have on a roll that shouldn't be artisan... but they are great! And I say "they" because for $18 bucks you get two of them! Normal sized, split top hot dog rolls toasted with lots of butter, the lobster meat is gently mixed with mayo and a little bit of green onion, and pepper. I've been there 3 times now, just for the rolls!

You can never eat too many lobster rolls. Thanks for sharing the tip about the sprawling Hamilton from the owners of  the many Clyde's restaurants.

We took your suggestions several years ago in Paris, now we are heading to London after the games. Do you have any must not be missed restaurants to consider? We will make plans for St John, and I'm sure you've got even more to consider. Thanks, Stoker

My most recent advice for dining in and around London can be found in this Postcard column.

why is this chat so slow? You're rivalling Hax's pace.

Sorry, I got a late start this morning.


Need. More. Coffee.

Speaking of clean hands, I wish restaurants would renovate the doors to the restrooms so that it was possible to exit without having to grab a door handle. In one restaurant I saw a really heavy plastic fixture added to the door through which one could place one's arm not the hand to open the door. I'm glad paper towels are returning in some places so at least one can keep a towel to use to open the door.

Cool idea. I, too, am put off by a lot of restroom doors; a lot of  folks are, um, less than thorough with their hand-washing, I've noticed.

Hi, Tom. Some friends and I are looking for a brunch spot for this Sunday in Dupont. Do you have any favorites? Thanks.

My favorite brunch destination is also one of the toughest reservations around, the Tabard Inn. Nearby alternatives include Firefly, Hank's Oyster Bar and Urbana.

Orso just added it to their menu in Falls Church.

Good to know. Let's add it to the list.

I think I had lunch next to you at Rasika shortly before your First Bite came out. Sitting next to you was like reading one of your reviews: you noted the decor, asked lots of questions about the differences between the West End and Downtown menus, commented that your food was oversalted (but still took a doggie bag), and displayed a truly stunning amount of knowledge about food. But one thing was very clear: you were at work and doing your job. As I and others at the bar enjoyed a leisurely meal on a quiet Good Friday afternoon, it was easy to see that you were there with a purpose beyond dining. And that made me wonder: are you an enjoyable person to eat with? Or do the demands of having to write multiple columns, chats, etc every week mean that you're all-business all food talk all the time? What do your dining companions think?

You have to ask the regulars in my posse what they think of dining with me. I hope I'm at least somewhat entertaining. I'm rarely "all-business" when I'm out and about.


I wasn't at Rasika West End on Good Friday, by the way. You must have me confused with another scribe (or maybe it was just a serious chowhound)?

Wow, I guess I'm just not sufficiently germaphobic. We need ways to open the bathroom door without touching it? Maybe I should get into plastic bubble sales. We can all live in our hermetically sealed environs and NEVER be exposed to anything EVER. Unless there is a specific contagion that is out there, just live life people. Wow.

You're talking to a guy who keeps bleach in his desk drawer and Purell in his briefcase. But I hear you!

It is gross if you spend time thinking about all the things you touch that other people have touched. Who knows if they were picking their nose or cleaning the litter box before going out to eat without washing their hands. Still, since we are all participating in this chat we have survived. If it bothers someone that much they might invest in surgical gloves. For others, don't think about it and you'll be fine. Really.

You go, girl! (Or boy!)

Darling Tom, you don't need to announce yourself to staff. They all know what you look like.

Darling Reader, just because they might know my mug doesn't mean I don't encounter problems with service or food.

I noticed that The Hamilton actually has little tissue dispensers by the door to use to open it. There's a trash can placed right next to the door as well.

Mr. Clean thanks you.

How about a great big congrats to Jose for making the top 100 in time this year. Well done.

Most cool. And well-deserved.

I was lukcy enough to win a very generous gift certficate to Restaurant Eve. Would you recommend the Tasting Room or the Bistro?

Based on my last meals in both venues, I'd go with the Bistro.  It's more relaxed.

Sure, not everyone leaving a bathroom washes their hands. Many of us grab the door handle with a paper towel, I figure the bathroom door handle is one of the cleanest things we come in contact with on a daily basis!

Now that you mention it ...

I read there are 14 new restaurants opening on 14th Street this year. Is there ever a worry about over saturation?

Competition is good for a business, but 14 additional restaurants is a lot of competion.  Not sure we need another pizza parlor or an Italian joint or a pork purveyor.


It will be interesting watch what concepts survive and which don't in that part of town.  (At least I won't have to worry about what to preview for First Bite for a long stretch!)

Just wanted to give our kudos and thanks to Ardeo+Bardeo for the fantastic dinner my husband and I shared there last night for our second wedding anniversary! The service, food, cocktails, and wine were all excellent. We'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite from the food we had: the brussels sprouts, chicken liver mousse, head cheese, burrata with French onion soup, chilled asparagus soup, lamb merguez, scallop schnitzel, rabbit bolognese, and the seven hour braised suckling pig. All fantastic. We'd mentioned it was our anniversary - and they brought us a free dessert and two glasses of champagne. A fantastic night all around! Many compliments and our thanks to the kitchen, servers, bartender, and manager from yesterday evening.

Nate Garyantes (and crew), take a bow.

Do you all take your medication? How is therapy going? man if you all ever saw how your food was prapared you would never it out.

Do tell!

Even though your dining experiences may differ from the average diner I do not understand the ongoing theme of derision/animosity regarding your objectivity in dining reviews. Sure, you may receive slightly better service if you are known to the restaurant but, I read your reviews because of your ability to discern high quality service and food. If someone thinks your being known to the staff negates your opinion why do they read this chat or your column?

Good point! (And thanks for writing in.) I try to make mention of the fact I'm sometimes recognized, just to let readers know. I like to be transparent about those matters.

Wondering if there is a nice hotel in DC to sit by oneself with a book for a cup of coffee or just some "me time" and a snack?

The garden patio at Poste Moderne?  The al fresco portion of Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons?

Tom, I noticed that the City Paper's (new?) food critic wrote a "First Bite"-style review of the new Chez Billy in Petworth seemingly based in part on tasting hors d'oeuvres passed at a media-only event. Please tell me this is not a standard media practice.

  It's not Post practice.


 Years ago, I worked on a code of ethics for critics that was later incorporated into literature published by the Association of Food Journalists.  


I believed then, and continue to think, that serious reviews of restaurants ought to be based on multiple visits and multiple dishes paid for by the critic or his publication. I would never do a critique of a place based on a media party  -- I tend not to go to them anyway -- or based just on passed food.


 It's different if a writer simply want to tell readers about a new place -- give them a sense of what to expect based on an early impression.


I'm out of time, gang. Thanks for your patience today.  Remember, I'll be back here again May 2. 


Chow for now.

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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