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

Apr 26, 2017

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 - Love the chats; thanks so much for my Wednesday morning entertainment. Here's my "issue" - had a lovely, early Sunday dinner, at Marcel's. My dining companion and I each ordered from the pre-theater menu; loved the food, the service and the ambiance. The check arrived with three small bites of sweets, complements of the kitchen. There were two people at the table, and each treat was unique. Not expected, and certainly well intended, but how can such an offering be reasonably be divided, when the check is split down the middle? I know - with all of the problems the world is now facing . . . but it seemed like the kitchen was making a gracious offering without considering the recipient(s). I'd love your opinion - and please know that your opinion is ALL I'm trying to get. Thanks for keeping your fans eating very well!

Those little bites are hard to share, right? Marcel's is far from the only restaurant guilty of serving food in amounts that don't correlate to the number of guests at the table -- a pet peeve of mine, right up there with dining rooms so dark you need a flashlight to read the menu. I'd love to know the thinking behind that. It defies common sense. Really, a restaurant is just teasing/annoying customers when odd numbers of snacks or such are brought out. Any chefs care to weigh in?


Happy Wednesday, everyone. Thanks for joining me today.


Last week at this time I was in Tulum, Mexico, waiting for the chance to try Noma Mexico, the third and final pop-up from Rene Redzepi, the acclaimed chef behind Noma in Copenhagen, proclaimed four years as the “world’s best restaurant.” My report from the jungle is on the cover of the Food section today. The seven-week run is sold out, but I heard yesterday from someone with two seats available on Friday, May 19 at 9 p.m.. Any takers? I’m happy to put you in contact with a fellow adventurer.


  Ahead of the publication of my spring guide May 7, I’m rolling out my Top 10 list. Today we’re at No. 6: Tiger Fork in Blagden Alley. 


   Finally, for the forthcoming luxury issue of the Sunday Magazine, I spent some time checking out the restaurants at the historic Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia last month.  Let's just say the kitchens could use some TLC. Breakfast is really the only meal you want to try there.


  I’m on a tight deadline today, so I’ll only be chatting until 11:30 or so. Send me your questions and comments pronto, please, and I’ll try to respond to as many as possible. 


  Ready, set, go!

I had an Open Table reservation for four at a DC restaurant on Saturday night (early, not prime time). They left a message asking me to confirm the reservation. When I called back 80 minutes later, they had canceled the reservation! It all worked out - they gave me the table - but what's up with that? I have never been a no-show and have a lot of points, though I don't go to this particular place regularly.

Irritating! But I doubt they would do that if there weren't a bunch of bad apples out there, simply not showing up (or arriving late) to restaurants. Open Table should take  the TSA "trusted customer" approach and make it easy for diners such as yourself with lots of points (read:  a good track record).

Like Mirabelle needs any more praise, but I want to share my experience anyway... I popped in for lunch a week and a halfish ago. It was casual Friday in my office, so I was in jeans, a souvenir Nat'l Forest t-shirt, and a really informal blazer - not a mess, but not exactly projecting power, status, and influence. It didn't even occur to me until I reached for the door handle that I might not be a picture perfect guest, and I was momentarily concerned about getting some side eye and a chilly reception based on what I was wearing (it's infrequent, and I might be too sensitive, but I feel this has happened at restaurants in the past). However, the entire staff could not have been more warm, gracious, and friendly. It was wonderful to actually feel like a welcome guest and not just like another butt in a seat, if you will. I'm sure I'm not alone when my first thought was "how much for a ham sandwich?!" but I'm so glad I read your point that it isn't just about the food at Mirabelle, that the service is at an incredibly high level. (And also, obviously, the consumables were all top-notch.) Cheers to Mirabelle for extending superior hospitality to even the non-power suit'd among us.

I think you just made Jennifer Knowles's day with your post. (She's the ace wine and service director there.)

Hi tom. I am new to town and have just accepted a job at the Nat Geo office building. It's between K st and DuPont circle. Any suggestions on a good restaurant for after work dinner or drinks?

Yes! Check out the just-opened Le Desales next to the Mayflower hotel downtown. The menu leans French, the curvy bar is great and I love the European vibe.

Hi Tom My wife and I are celebrating our 14 year wedding anniversary on Saturday. I'd like to treat her to a good seafood restaurant however I don't want to go into DC. Ideally somewhere around fairfax county is great but I'm also curious about anything in MGM. I've heard FISH is supposed to be excellent. I don't want to spend a fortune since we just bought a new house but am looking around $150 total. We're not big drinkers so we'd probably only have 1 drink each. Where are your top 3 places?

Fish by Jose Andres is where you want to find yourself. You can dine very well there with the budget you have in mind. Spring for the crusty crab cakes, lobster roll or  anything fried (the celebrity chef adores frying). And congrats. 

Is that because of your therapy session with psych after your trip out to WV and the Greenbrier?? You are a braver man than I am! All those uneducated Trump voters. The great unwashed. My boyfriend and I could never do it. We get anxious when we leave Georgetown and have to go shopping at Tysons

Now, now! Let's not judge. I actually had fun at the Greenbrier -- well, outside most of the dining rooms, that is.

What are you liking in NYC these days?

I'm overdue for a trip, frankly. Chatters, what are *you* digging up there now?

I took my wife and in-laws to Convivial for dinner the other night and I want to publicly praise their performance. I had the bouillabaise which was seriously delicious, but wasn't as hot as it should have been. Following your advice of registering complaints on the scene, I mentioned this to my waiter (Vlad maybe? He was new) who immediately offered to bring me another dish, which I declined. Not 30 seconds later, a manager came by and insisted that she re-heat the dish. She said the bouillabaise is the chef's favorite dish and must be perfect. I acquiesced and I must say the dish was so much better just because it was at the right temperature. The experience demonstrated that Convivial has a clear communications chain of command, and problems are aggressively fixed on the spot. I just want to say thank you to Convivial for having amazing food and even better service.

Take a bow, Convivial, for maintaining high standards. And kudos to the poster who did the right thing by piping up instead of stewing in silence. 

A la carte, or tasting menu? (Leaning towards the full shebang of 6-courses)

If that's what you want, go for it. Personally, I'm not a big eater and six courses is longer than I want to sit. I tend to gravitate to the a la carte menu in most restaurants because I can explore more of the selections. (Most places ask that the entire table order the same way.)

I have friend who is bringing a group of English visitors to the DC area. What suggestions do you have in the downtown-ish area for AMERICAN food? They are staying in Farragut and are happy to range west to Georgetown and east to Penn/City Centre. I've already warned them of Founding Farmers and Old Ebbitt but am not quickly coming up with options to recommend instead. Corduroy? Georgia Brown's? Blue Duck? 1789? I'd like to give them a few options to choose from. Thanks in advance! I am a frequent lurker but never have a question so I'm excited to get your thoughts.

For a taste of what's regional, the Dabney in Blagden Alley, a specialist in Mid-Atlantic fare, is where your friend should take the English visitors. On the menu:  pork rinds, soft shell crabs, whole grilled rockfish and more. In Penn Quarter, Nopa Kitchen + Bar is a pleasant, light-filled destination for ramp-garlic soup, beef short ribs with heirloom beans and chicken roulade.

No question to ask, just wanted to say how much I enjoy and appreciate this chat. I haven't lived in DC for 20 years but recently spent a week there and ate very well thanks to your advice and recommendations. Convivial, especially, was outstanding.

Your note makes my day. (We're all plants that need a little watering, right?) Thanks for taking the time to post. I couldn't do this, obviously, without the input from my readers. this chat is a highlight of my week.

When friends come to DC from out of town we like to find quiet restaurants with good food and good service. Vidalia was on that list, but judging from the photos of the interior, Hummingbird is not quiet. Any other recommendations (we like New Heights and Plume)? Thank you.

My standard response to "good-and-quiet-please" is Corduroy, the townhouse restaurant near the convention center. I'm a big fan of chef Tom Power's beautiful food, served in an environment that's easy on the ears.

It will be 5 years since I was diagnosed with advanced cancer, and given a 5 year survival rate of about 10%. Yet here I am. I want to go out for a special dinner, but since it is a weeknight, I want to stay near my house: Tysons, Reston, Fairfax triangle. We have eaten at all of the nice places in Vienna -- Clarity comes to mind for this evening, but I am wondering if there are any other suggestions. (I was toying with the idea of going to the Inn, but not on a weeknight, and I do not want to drop $900 for the dinner for the three of us; $200 seems better)

First, I'm thrilled for you.


Second, good for you for treating yourself to a festive meal to acknowledge the occasion.


If you haven't been, Villa Mozart in Fairfax City is cozy and delicious; I'm also a fan of the Greek food and hospitality at Nostos in Tysons Corner.


Let me know if you try either, and stay well.


Hi Tom, If you had to choose between Pineapple & Pearls, Minibar, Komi, or Inn at Little Washington, which would it be? Due to my cheapness, dinner at this price point has to be a once-a-year special occasion affair. Thanks!

That's a tough choice. I admire all the above, for different reasons. I know of no more interesting avant garde restaurant in the country than Minibar by Jose Andres and Pineapple and Pearls is setting the bar for fine-dining in the U.S. But if you've never been,

the Inn at Little Washington is a food fantasy wrapped in a sumptuous package. Start there. 

Tom- knowing that you love Indian food, have you ever tried out Indigo over in NoMa area ?

I have not, but thanks for the prompt to make a visit. Speaking of Indian food, I've been rolling out my Top 10 Best New Restaurants list ahead of the forthcoming spring dining guide. No. 7 is Bindaas, the Indian street food charmer with food from a four-star chef. 

Many of the restaurants you review are small, pricey places in a city with one of the most vibrant and varied restaurant cultures in the country. Most of us rarely have a chance to go to the places you write about. In many areas and for many people, "dining out" means going to a national chain restaurant. Have you ever given advice about getting a good meal at Applebee's, Olive Garden etc.? Or does the very thought disgust you?

Over the years, I've done short takes of some of the chains, but not recently. (I recall a surprisingly good Manhattan at an Applebee's in New Mexico a few years ago.) I'm definitely game to eat "outside the box," however. Regular readers know I have a soft spot for Popeyes.

My husband and I went to Bindaas Saturday night for the first time. The food was amazing, but the service left us feeling like no one wanted us there. The waiter was short with us, our drinks didn't arrive until three dishes in and in the end he dropped our check off without a word of pleasantness. We usually abide by your "speak to the manager at the time" rule, but since the food was all great, we didn't know how to complain about brusque service without coming across as whiners. Is there anything we could or should have done? Or this normal - maybe street food means less attentive service than other places? I've written to the manager now with my thoughts, even if they are too late.

I'm sorry to hear that, for obvious reasons. But you should have relayed your misgivings. A restaurant can't correct a mistake if it's not aware of a problem. 

Hi Tom - Was at an event at the Marriott Marquis last night and stopped by Arroz to check out the menu while waiting for valet to bring up car. The menu was posted outside the entrance, but no prices were included!! Hoping someone there see this. It is MOST annoying!! Thx!

Arroz, are you listening? (The restaurant is great fun, by the way. My preview lists a price range.)

Hi Tom - Recently, I went to Kapnos with a friend. The plates were described to us as tapas style, and the waitress recommended ordering 3-4 per person. We ended up going with 6 and a flatbread/dip, and we consider ourselves big eaters. There was way too much food - so much food on the table that we had to begin scraping food off of some plates and putting it on to others so that it could fit on our two-person table. The waitress came by and remarked that we had ordered too much food. I was mildly upset by this because she recommended that number of plates. I also felt that while the plates were shareable, they weren't exactly the tapas-size I'm used to. It's a shame we wasted so much of the food, it was mostly delicious! Thoughts on servers pushing excessive amounts of food?

I tend to under-order at first -- ask for one or two plates -- so I can avoid the problem altogether. Servers and chefs might not like it, but until diners know what they're getting, it's hard to know how much to order in some places.

At an unnamed restaurant I ordered a lovely dessert and my 7 dinner companions ordered only coffee or nothing. The waiter brought the dessert with 8 forks. Is that standard practice? .

No. While well-meaning, the server should not have assumed you would be sharing the dessert. (I can only imagine how much of it would be left for *you* once your table mates had a go at the sweet.) An easy way to solve the problem might have been for the waiter to whisper, "Would you like extra utensils?"

Hi Tom, Enjoy your chats. Just wanted to give you a shout out for your mention of "no reservations" policies as something to include in "spring cleaning." Thanks for remembering that not all diners have the ability, time, or flexibility to stand in line and wait (or the money to hire someone to do it).

I'm looking out for you, diners!


The spring cleaning issue.


Folks, I have to run. Let's do this again next week, same time, OK?  Thanks for the good company.

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; 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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