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

May 02, 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 look forward to the weekly chats? Why did you miss last week (4/25)? It appears that you are missing a great number of chats these days? Why? Isn't this a key part of your job?

I'm glad you missed me (and I missed you, or at least chatting with you and others about one of our favorite topics).


Honestly, though, I don't think I've missed more than a few chats this year. I'm pretty  good about scheduling trips and/or deadlines around my Wednesday morning routine.


I was away March 21 because I was in India. (Did you catch my Postcard from New Dehli on Sunday?) While I was in town April 25, I opted not to chat so I could wrap up my forthcoming spring dining guide, which is a look back at 15 previously reviewed restaurants.  This year's issue comes out May 20 in print and May 16 online.


Without further ado, let's get to today's questions and comments.

Any advice on restaurants in Amsterdam? I will be there for a couple of days. Thanks.

Amsterdam is one of those cities where you really need to do some homework to avoid a middling meal.  You can't  just randomly walk into a restaurant, the way you can in say, San Francisco or Paris, and expect something good. It doesn't help that Dutch restaurant service is pretty mediocre.


That said, I've had some fabulous meals in Amsterdam. They include the ageless Tempo Doeloe for rijstafel (an Indonesian feast); Visaandeschelde for seafood; Greetje for modern Dutch fare (hope to find the local fish known as tub gurnard); Caffe Toscanini for some of the best Italian cooking outside Italy (trust me!);  and De Kas for hyper-local cooking served beneath a tented glass ceiling and surrounded by herb and other gardens on the city's outskirts.

Hi Tom, My mother is coming to town soon, and she loves sole meuniere. Is there anywhere around town that makes this dish well? Thanks

Take mom to La Chaumiere for the delicacy, which is served in one of the dreamiest restaurants in Georgetown. Picture timbered beams overhead, copper pots on the walls and a crackling fire when it's cold out.

You or the chatters have any suggestions for Houston?

Houston, anyone?


I'll start the list with a shout out for The Reef, a terrific seafood restaurant whose chef ( Bryan Caswell) was deservedly one of Food & Wine's 10 Best New Chefs in 2009.


I have a friend coming to town and we're meeting for a fairly early dinner. I'd take her to Zaytinya but she's not a fan of middle-eastern cuisine (that's the only limitation, though). We'd like something fairly casual and inexpensive and not super-crowded (like Oyster Bar) where we can chat over a light dinner and drinks. I'd like a place more trendy than Old Ebbitt, Hamilton, or Chef Geoff's. Ideas? I am admittedly out of touch with the downtown scene lately...I can't keep up with all the new places! Signed, 30-something with kids who doesn't get out much anymore

Not-so-new but definitely fashion-forward: the bar at Central Michel Richard and the Mexican bites at Oyamel. Closer still to 1600 Penn is the second-story Cafe du Parc in the Willard Hotel complex.

Recently I had a group of 20 attend a dinner at McCormick & Schmicks at Crystal City. The service was very poor and the food was not very good as well. Since I complained about my meal they gave me a credit for my dinner and have offered a small gift card. Since then others haved expressed having poor meals as well. Should the restaurant offer more and since the organization paid for the dinner what good is a gift card?

I need more details. I assume you did the right thing, and complained on the spot rather than wait until you left the restaurant. Gift cards are a nice response, but only if a diner thinks he or she might have a better future meal. Are you suggesting the organization be reimbursed by the restaurant? Or just the individuals who complained?

I don't think you miss that many chats, and I can't understand why people reading a chat for free feel so entitled to Post staffers' time. There was a similar question for Carolyn Hax, who always spends 3 hours instead of 2 doing her chat because she feels she responds slowly to questions. Neither of you has anything to apologize for.

Whew! (And thanks. Not one at the Post is *required* to host a chat, but I feel it's a great forum for sharing ideas and addressing reader concerns.)

Hi Tom, I've finally gotten my new boyfriend to commit to an evening out in DC this weekend, and I'm not sure where to eat! We'll be staying in the Dupont area, and just need to watch the is tight for both of us right now. We're flexible on location, cuisine and atmosphere. Thanks, your recommendations are always great!

ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen serves some of the best fast food in the area, and I like the self-service restaurant's easy style. Another comfortable, budget-minded concept in Dupont Circle is Nando's Peri-Peri, best-known for its spicy chicken. And let's not forget the homespun Greek retreat, Zorba's, or Pizzeria Paradiso for the obvious.


You might consider taking the money you're saving at any of the above and putting it toward drinks afterwards.  Madhatter, Mourayo or Casa Nonna would all be good follow-ups.


Hi Tom, Love the chats ! When will your Spring Dining guide be coming out? Is this another "then and now" dining guide?

I'm putting the finishing touches on the guide, which comes out May 16 online and May 20 in the Magazine.  As in years past, I'm updating (15) previously reviewed establishments.

When I exited the ladies' room at the Hamilton I was pleased - and amused - to see a dispenser of very small towels right next to the exit, perfect (and obviously intended) for using to grasp the handle without sullying your just-washed hands. Kudos!

Great idea, I agree.

Tom, This is a rant, but a short one. I am fed up of people sweeping multiple diverse cuisines into one with statements such as "She is not a fan of middle-eastern cuisine." Really? The entire middle east, from Turkey to Morocco? Rant over.

I hear you. We've addressed this issue before, the subject being Indian food.


In some diners' defense, I think it's a few seasonings or preparations that are deterring them from a cuisine. Or maybe they've just had bad versions of popular dishes.

Several years ago on a first anniversary trip to Boston, my husband and I took a wonderful culinary tour of the old Italian area of the city. Since it was the week after the kiddos go back to school, we lucked out and had a personal tour for just the two of us. That was where we learned in some detail about digestifs and the role they can play in a good meal. Do you have any favorite digestifs if you find yourself dining out and having overindulged somewhat?

The after-dinner drink I find myself reaching for most often at home is Zirbenz, a slightly sweet, crisp pine-scented liqueur from Austria. The unusual foresty flavor grows on you.

Help Tom My husband and i just celebrated our 7th wedding anniversay. We were on vacation in St Lucia (traveling the day of our actual anniversary) so we didn't get to have a nice dinner. We want to go out this weekend but are stumped. We don't want seafood (had seafood everyday on vacation). Ideally we want to be in the fairfax area - something moderaterly priced but with good flavors. We are pretty adventerous eaters and like Japanese, Italian but would like to stick to a good American meal. Suggesions?

Villa Mozart in Fairfax has everything you want: distinguished Italian cooking,  the option of a fixed price dinner, a modestly romantic setting. Chef-owner Andrea Pace is one of the unsung heros on the cooking scene.

We are looking for someplace where we can go for dinner, short notice, fine dining, not too fussy or obscure.

Did you catch my recent three-star review of Mintwood Place? That's an option. And even though they've been around awhile, Vidalia and Blue Duck Tavern (under a new chef since my last critique)  are worthy contenders for your special night out, too.

Mr. Sietsema, When will you be reviewing chef Dan O'Brien's Seasonal Pantry? His cooking is passionate and flawless and for the price, I would put one of his supper club dinners up against any multi-course dinner in the city. Thank you.

Patience, gentle reader, patience. I've already previewed the experience. What kind of critic would I be if I spilled any plans to write about Seasonal Pantry, or any other dining room for that matter?

Tom, you and Dan Savage are my life guides, so please tell me whether I was reasonable in being irked. If not, I will graciously accept your verdict. Two weeks ago, I took my boyfriend to happy hour before dinner on his birthday. West End Bistro is close to my office, and I'd thought that their happy hour in the past was great (I'd been a few times), so I sent my boyfriend a link to their online menu to ensure that there was something that he'd like (which he did). When we arrived, we were given happy hour menus that were completely different than what was posted online: no cocktails, far fewer food options. When I inquired with the bartender, he told me that they hadn't served cocktails at happy hour for 8 months, that they no longer made any of the cocktails or food from their online menu, and that they no longer worked with the company that did their website. When I told him that they should update it, he said that they were in the process of doing so. I understand a website being down for maybe a couple of weeks, but for 8 months? For a restaurant of that price and quality? Eric Ripert, what's up? I have a good job, but I don't like spending $14 for a drink that was advertised at $6, and I don't like making an effort to do my homework for a special day only to be thwarted by indifferent staff. (By the way, I would've emailed the manager, but the email address listed on the website used the same domain, so I doubted that anyone would actually read it.) Thanks for your thoughts.

  Initial thought: Eight months is way too long to leave a web site unattended. In this day and age, eight days is too long not to update online information!


 This post reminds me to remind participants to write in ahead of the chat with questions such as this one. I think it's only fair to pass complaints along and solicit responses from the restaurants in question.


I received this complaint yesterday afternoon and promptly reached out to the Westend Bistro for comment, which I'm including below:



"At West End Bistro we are aware of our dated website. We have been working diligently with our web design company to produce a new, interactive, easily navigable website that our guests can visit to see current menus, make reservations and see our upcoming happenings. As a result of this work, our old site has been left inaccurate, with our focus on the new site's pending launch. We apologize to anyone who has received misinformation due to this changeover. We are grateful to all of our guests for their patronage and look forward to launching our new website within the next 2 weeks. Should there be a need to contact the leadership at West End Bistro, please email "

Hi Tom, When somebody asks a recommendation for an out-of-town place, do you know of the top of your head, or do you have a list/database/app where you keep the names of places you like, why, etc.? Also, I have a favorite place in town, and go there at least once a week, have great conversations with the bartender and try new beers every time. The other day I went and the regular bartender wasn't there, and the one who was working was totally not into it and had an attitude (mostly because the weather was nice and he was working - he said this). So the experience was totally different, I even thought about leaving when I saw his reaction to my beer question (which was "how is X?" which is normally how I start a conversation with a server or a bartender to see if they are knowledgable and or enthusiastic about their job) which was pretty much rolling his eyes, mind you this is a place known with its beer seelction and having been through most of the list, I picked a relatively unknown and interesting beer. Sorry for the long ramble, what I am trying to say is, if this was my first experience at this place, I'd never go back, but fortunately this person works here only 2 days a week, so I am going back when he's not there simply not to get the attitude. Just a note to restaurateurs, when you are passionate about what you do, please make sure everyone you hire is the same way, or it kills the experience. I know it is hard to find good people, but apparently this person has been there for a while or he was acting like it, and thought he was entitled know to boss around the others, and give both the servers and customers some attitude.

Thanks for sharing your concern. In the last week or so, I've talked to three people who tell me they don't go to their favorite restaurants when they know their favorites servers won't be working.  So some other restaurant is getting their business that night.

My brother and SIL plus two kids under 5 are coming to visit, and I need ideas of where to take them! The kids are used to restaurants and are well-behaved, the parents like good food (they live in Chicago), but places that take 2 hours+ are out of the question.

Near the Mall:  Hill Country Barbecue and Jaleo


Near the zoo:  Ardeo + Bardeo and Palena (for lunch)


On the Hill: Ted's Bulletin or Seventh Hill Pizza


That help?

I'm sorry, that's just compounding the problem. When a web site is outdated and inaccurate, TAKE IT DOWN. Better no web site than such an inaccurate one. Restaurateurs just don't seem to get this.

I agree:  Something as simple as "Under Reconstruction" is better than invalid information.

Wow, that's a really poor answer from the West End Bistro folks. Certainly shows that they REALLY don't understand the damage bad information can do.

Anymore, I think a current site is as important as clean stemware and a friendly host.

Some people don't like change. They didn't grow up eating middle-eastern food so they don't like it. It's not a crime to be a creature of habit. Mind your own business, it's their dining dollars to spend.

Many similar sentiments are floating my way here this morning.

This is often the case. I have a friend who cannot eat cumin, which pretty much cuts out Indian and Mexican for her. Not that every Indian or Mexican dish contains cumin, but she gets tired of having to grill the waiter on it. It's easier just to avoid those cuisines.


In your response regarding Amsterdam, you suggested (in contrast) that one could randomly walk into a restaurant in Paris and expect something good. Au contraire! While there is much fantastic food in Paris -- and your Postcards have helped me find a lot of it -- I learned the hard way, on a pre-Sietsema-reading trip, that it is actually pretty easy to find mediocre food in Paris. It is easy to avoid, of course, with quick research using Postcards, books, and concierge recommendations, and I have never been disappointed after that one trip. But I have read that this is a common problem for foreign visitors who don't do their homework -- they walk into random places that look promising, have a subpar dining experience, and go home with the view that French food is overrated because it wasn't that great when they had it. (On the other hand, I think you're largely right about San Francisco, though I always check your Postcards anyway.)

Of course you're right. I've had indfferent cooking in France, too. If I could grab back my response, I would have switched Vienna for Paris, and I say that based on two fairly recent trips to Austria.

I've asked this several times but never gotten an answer. Do you know any place in the District that serves really great linguini with clams? I have had a hankering for quite some time. Thanks. And I also like Greek, Italian, Mexican, and Indian food, among others even though I was raised on midwestern bland fare similar to yours.

It's been awhile since I've indulged in it, but the simple dish served at Al Tiramisu in Dupont Circle is a simple delight.

Tom, we diner there recently and fail to see how you could give it 3 stars. While the apps were good-cracklin and escargot hushpuppies (didn't taste any escargot though), my meat pasta was flavorful but nothing that I couldn't whip up at home and would certainly use a better quality of pasta. The duck breast was tasty but the hash brown bottom was mushy and flavorless. I do agree that the wine list, while well chosen, is over priced but my corkage bottle was received with no complaints. Due to my expanding waistline, I chose the sorbet-3 scoops of ok sorbet plopped into a white bowl. Again, I can do this at home. Service was excellent, some of the best I've had recently in this area. BUT, nothing was transcendent, something I would expect from a 3 star restaurant.

In my book, three stars is "excellent" rather than "transcendent."  Cedric Maupillier's mountain pie, pasta Bolognese, chocolate brownie sundae, shad special, cast-iron chicken, hanger steak frites, pork for two and apple tart all helped fueled my rating.  

Red or white ? big difference

White (wine) sauce.

Previous restaurateur who handled the website here... Changing wording on the menu, or updating it with a new one is not that hard. If you have a site up, it means someone has access to it, and whatever format it is, it can be changed in no more than 10-15 minutes to either take out the old content to say here is a selection from our new menu, or simply change the hours of happy hour etc. And of course attaching a pdf or word document (which they already have since they have a menu in the restraurant) on a menu page takes less than 5 minutes total. Designing a new website with features is not an excuse, especially for 8 months. So they are saying they can't hire a student to update the site in a couple of hours while they work on the new one? I bet they already have someone on staff who can do this. This shows me the lack of attention and interest in the restaurant's success, which I find hard to believe if especially the job is on the Ritz. Also, as a previous restaurateur, normally chefs are not involved in the marketing and management of the restaurant unless they are owners. And I have a lot of respect for Eric Ripert and his own restaurants in NY, but clearly this is a management agreement and the marketing portion falls on the shoulders of the hotel. It gives me another reason to follow locally owned independent operators and mom and pop operations (which by the way have figured out how to have an accurate website) as oposed to ones with big corporate structures that cannot function.

Brilliantly stated. Thanks for taking the time to write in today.

If it takes several weeks to "fix" the website, then I can only imagine how tarted up and useless the website is likely to be. If only restaurants would skip the music, the animation, the extraneous information their customers can actually use. My favorite pet peeve--web sites where you have to click through have a dozen screens to get an address or a phone number. A website is usually a potential customer's first impression of a restaurant. An awful website is likely to turn off a lot of potential customers!

Uh huh.

I have a craving for this dish often and haven't found a place that makes it for a decent price. So I get the frozen clams from Trader Joe's (with garlic and herbs), cook it in a pan in the last 2 minutes of cooking linguine, and voila. Perfect Pasta alla vongole for less than $8 any time I want!

I now have a major hankering for clams and noodles ...

Have to disagree with you about Palena for kids. We live in the neighborhood, and have tried to do brunch there with out daughter a few times. They were terrible - no highchairs, seated us at an awful table for a kid, service was beyond belief slow (had time to take daughter on a 15 minute walk around the block before they even brought coffee), and the staff were not polite - rolled their eyes when they saw we were bringing a child, and ignored our table in favor of a group of old people. Ardeo on the other hands has been wonderful every time we've been. When we've brought our daughter they have been incredibly accomodating and friendly (even once on a busy night), they are fast, food is wonderful, cannot say enough good things about them. In terms of service, atmosphere, and general professionalism, they are light years ahead of Palena.

Thanks for the field report. (In my defense, the kids in question were five years old and good eaters. They wouldn't have required high chairs.)

Did you ever think you would be linked to Dan Savage as a lifetime guide?


I haven't been there, but I'm responding to the response from this restaurant. It's great that they're updating their website, but in the meantime they should take down inaccurate information. If $6 cocktails now cost $14, that's information that would cause me never to set foot in the place again if I learned that information the hard way.

I'm afraid you're right.

Customers: If the menu isn't what the website led you to expect, don't just complain--leave. You don't make your point by going with the flow; there are competing venues nearby. Restaurateurs: Remove menus that don't reflect your current environment, even if you don't have a new one to put up. And stop being so precious about your website designs. Insist on designs that any marginally computer-literate staff member can update with the basics: Menu changes, location, hours, contact info. Ideally, specials, too. Don't depend on your contractor for that service. If the site is too hard for you to update, it will be a drag for the contractor, too. Most web designers are less interested in housekeeping than you are.

Another thoughtful response.

Help! I know this is really late, but I love your chats and reviews and need the help! Going to a family thing in San Francisco area and none of us have ever been. We have one night for dinner (about 6 of us). Any recommendations? Any type of cuisine, but fish and veggy options. Moderately priced. Can be SF/Oak or Berk. THANKS!

I've mentioned Zuni Cafe a hundred times in this forum and the restaurant remains one of my all-time favorites -- anywhere.  The Mediterranean-style venue has everything you're looking for, plus great service and fun crowd.

Is there anyway you can contact the restaurateur, to let him know that one of his employees is causing him to lose business? As you say, if this had been your first time there, you would not only never go back, but you'd tell all your friends to avoid this place.

I agree: A superior needs to know about the bad apples in the restaurant.


On that inconclusve note, I bid you all a four-star weekend.  Come back next Wednesday and we can chat about the James Beard Awards, which I'll be attending May 7 in New York. 

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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