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

May 09, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Hey Tom, Did you follow the James Beard Awards this year? It was a such a let down that none of the four area chefs up for the Mid-Atlantic Award got it (it went to the sole non-D.C.-area chef from Hoboken!). No love for Fiola as best new restaurant either. What did you think of how the awards turned out?

I was in the audience when that award was announced and you could sense the surprise (disappointment?) in the air around me, in part because I was seated near a DC contingent of nominees and supporters.


I was stunned.  Cucharamama is a very good restaurant, but I was sure Cathal or Peter or Johnny or Vikram was going to go on stage to accept the regional award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic. 


My hunch is that the four of them split the vote, which is decided on by a panel of restaurant awards committee members, regional judges and a very large body of past chef/restaurant awards winners.


Good morning, everyone. Sorry for the late start, but we have some breaking news to share later in the hour.


Let's start.

Husband and I are escaping from our two babies for only the 2nd time in 3 years and heading up to Frederick for a night. We're looking for something a little less expensive than Volt, a place where we can escape (most) kids, can talk comfortably & that has some good eats. Thank you!

It's been a few years since I've dined there, but the Tasting Room downtown counts lots of charms:  an interesting modern American menu that also fits in filet mignon and roast chicken, a glass-wrapped dining room and pricers that are gentler than Volt's.

Tom: I am treating a local food lover to a birthday dinner at CityZen, but before I announce my gift I need pronunciation tutoring. Is the name pronounced City-Zen or Citizen? Thanks for the lesson!!!

You are smart to ask! The reservationist says the formal dining room in the Mandarin Hotel is correctly pronounced "citizen."

Is there anything that you don't like or won't eat?

There are a number of things I'm not crazy about -- chiefly anything with fennel or licorice --- but I still eat and rate dishes with those ingredients, because that's what one does in this profession. Part of the job is transcendng personal taste. 


I won't go out of my way to eat food made in obviously unsafe conditions, although I did eat some (roadside) mutton kabob during my trip to India that began with someone chopping onions on a stool. The food came to the table on a less-than-clean plate, which I swabbed with some bleach and water beforehand. Obviously, I lived to tell the tale. 

Also downtown you could try Acacia or Cafe Nola. Just walk along Market and Patrick to read menus posted on places - lots of choices. If you're willing to go several miles south on Rt 355 try Monocacy Crossing.

Thanks for weighing in.

Good morning Tom! I want your opinion on a disturbing trend that I wish would go away - serving main courses that require cutting in a bowl! I was at a great restaurant this past weekend and had an excellent meal but my steak came in a bowl not on a plate. This is not the first place I've had this happen and I'm getting to the point of asking for a plate to cut my food or using my bread plate for the main. What are your thoughts?? Thanks for chiming in.

If more chefs sat down and ate their food as they expected their guests to, I think there would be fewer such problems. That's what I think. Same goes for uncomfortable chairs, tables, lights and other aspects of the dining experience.

Hi Tom - have you traveled at all in SE Asia? Any dining tips?

Vietnam and Cambodia are on my bucket list!

Dude, first you keep us waiting and now you leave us hanging! Where's the love?

Patience, dear reader, patience.

I will be visiting DC tomorrow for a long weekend, and moving there from Canada in August. If you could recommend one or two restaurants that a newcomer to the city should try, what would they be? Thanks!

You want an only-in -Washington kind of experience? That can be hard to do -- and expensive! -- on short notice. But if you went to Ethiopic for its vegetarian sampler and  Vidalia for its true-tasting southern cooking, you'd probably leave wanting to return to the area for more of its food.


Care to weigh in with other ideas, folks?

All we really want is menu, phone number, address, and maybe directions. A picture is nice for out-of towners, since it does help you to locate the place. NO ANIMATION! NO EFFECTS!

And NO MUSIC, I would hasten to add.

I was intrigued by your first bite on Green Pig. Is it worth making the drive from DC?

Young as it is, I'm smitten by the look and feel of  Green Pig Bistro, not to mention a menu that dares to be a little bolder than most. Go, go!

I was pleased to read on last week's chat your positive comments regarding dining options in Vienna. I'm heading there tomorrow for about a week. Could you offer some recommendations? Thanks.

Off the top of my head, Ofenloch and Vestibule are great for proper Viennese cooking. If you have money to burn, spring for Steirereck, set in a park and one of the most amazing meals I've ever had.

Tom, I understand that you don't want to have any "will never touch" foods in your position - but on the other hand, I don't know that forcing down some fennel/anise flavored whatever (and btw, I fully agree with that dislike) could yield any worthwhile commentary. I don't see how you could comment on the subtleties of a dish when your taste buds are sending back the message "PTOOOIE! LICORICE!"

I guess I've grown to like licorice and similar flavorings a bit more over time.  And as another would-be poster is suggesting, there are differences between fresh and dried (fennel and such) . I can discern nuances, I think, wthout having to love the flavors.

Why don't the James Beard Foundation restaurant award judges just rename the organization "The James Beard Foundation for the Adulation of NYC And Ignoring of Most Others"? They make themselves look small. Grrrrrr.

Not *entirely* true: The awards for outstanding pastry chef, restaurateur and restaurant went to people in Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco, respectively.

Tom, my husband and I have a rare kid free dinner next weekend to celebrate our anniversary. Where is fun and good where we can hear ourselves and each other? It doesn't need to be the latest trend. (moderate budget, a little bit of a splurge.) we have a hotel room for the night on Capitol Hill but the whole city is fare game. We like ethnic food, not a lot of red meat and my husband has a major sweet tooth.

Good, moderate, (comparatively quiet): Mio downtown,  Montmarte on the Hill, pre-theater menu at 701 in Penn Quarter, Atlas Room on H St. NE, Bombay Club near the White House. That help?

Tom, would you please share where your culinary travels are taking you next? Also, did I miss your write-up on your India visit or was it a private trip?

I wrote up just one experience in New Delhi for the Travel section, my dinner at Indian Accent.  My next Postcard, in June, will highlight a fun new Nordic restaurant in Minneapolis. 

Hi, Tom. What are your favorite Georgetown locations for dinner? Friends are coming into town, and I never eat in that area due to the parking hassles! Thanks.

The two places I tend to find myself eating in the most over there are the American-themed 1789 in the shadow of Georgetown University and La Chaumiere near the Four Seasons for an old-fashioned French blow-out. But Bourbon Steak is also great fun (with awesome service and cocktails, I should add).

If its not too late, I'd love to help the chatter asking about Frederick restaurant ideas! Volt recently opened a first-come, first-serve patio with less expensive snacks - it's a beautiful garden area that might be fun for a drink and a few small plates. For the atmosphere they commenter described, I like Tasting Room but I would also recommend Acacia for a elegant-but-not-stuffy atmosphere and good food. Firestones would also fit the bill, especially if they get a table upstairs against the window for some great people watching on Market Street below. Hope this helps!

Thanks for the additional ideas, updates.

I totally agree w you on the JBA, over the years they've always awarded many chefs from all over, and I always look up to see if theres any JBA restaurant I can eat at when I travel. With that said, and as much as I love the chefs nominated from our city, I feel like NY turned up the heat recently and the food out there is amazing most of the time. I also agree w you that the votes got split, kind of like Brad Pitt going against himself at the Oscars. Do like Peter Pastan and appreciate being part of the awards and the PR that comes w it...

The Mid-Atlantic's time will come (for awards). We just have to be patient. In coming months, a number of high-profile groups will descend on our city and probably dine widely -- and share their findings with large audiences. Meanwhile, we should really be proud of what the city is doing right now.


Breaking news: Bart Vandaele is opening a second Belgian restaurant, and it's going to be a lot more ambitious than his Begla Cafe on the Hill, he says.

I'm going to be spending over a week in Las Vegas for work soon, and was hoping for some restaurant ideas. I've been to Bouchon, B&B, Mesa Grill & Nobu in Las Vegas already. Thanks so much for all you do!

Missing from your list: Raku, the intimate Japanese restaurant off The Strip, where the top chefs go to graze, and the high-end restaurant atop the Mandarin Oriental -- name escapes me! - that puts in you ina Parisian frame of mind.


Time is up, gang. Have a grand remainder of the week and let's meet here again next Wednesday. 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.

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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