Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, comments, rants and raves.

May 30, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Dear Tom - We went to a new spanish restaurant in what turned out to be day two of their extremely soft opening - Why doesn't anyone circulate to see how the experience was? I felt like we were essentially paying full menu price to be dress (or barely tech) rehearsal participants. We were the first table seated (at 7pm), I am closely watching sodium and asked waiter to convey to kitchen to not finish with salt or add any where they had control. Dishes came back with a thick sprinkling of sea salt on top. Spinach with lemon had a pool of straight salty lemon juice in the bottom of the dish. They did cheerfully take back and remake, but we were the only party there much of the time, it could have been done right. Also my husband had the octopus and bone marrow and was up all night , er, rejecting it. I'm happy to overlook lack of liquor license, new-place jitters, what have you, but I would have appreciated someone coming to apologize or murmur soothingly given that two of our tapas were half eaten (only meh) and two were sent back. Shout out to their neighbor Ripple, I've yet to eat there without a manager-type coming by the table to check in, and our bill always has the note to the kitchen to hold salt.

Were you invited to dinner by the restaurant or did you happen to try it on your own? I assume you paid full freight?


Whatever, the best thing you could have done: Ask the server to have the manager drop by your table, at which time you could have spoken with someone with the authority to make things right (talk to the kitchen, ask the cooks to more carefully read orders right, etc.)


Soft openings are just that, a chance to practice during a restaurant's infancy.  I'm surprised there wasn't more of a mangement presence, though.


Good morning, gang. Thanks for joining me for a snack before lunch today.

Hi Tom, My husband and I are working at a summer camp in Falls Church, and plan to dine there every evening for 5 nights, rather than slog through the awful beltway commute in rush hour back to our home in Silver Spring. Could you send us your top picks for restaurants in that area? Any price is fine. Thanks! Audrey Andrist

What a smart strategy! Among the places I really like in Falls Church are Bamian for Afghan food; Pizzeria Orso for Italian pies and pasta; Bangkok Golden Thai for its Laotian menu; Hang Sung Oak for Korean; and Elephant Jumps for Thai flavors.

I am about to celebrate the 30th anniversary of my 30th birthday and would like to make it a wonderful evening in DC. I am thinking of a place for drinks, a place for dinner and then maybe a place for dessert, drinks and music. It will be a minimum of 2 couples but I would expand the group if I found some spare change in the sofa or sold another house. (I am a real estate agent). I still think of myself as 21 so I'm not looking for quiet and sedate although I would like to hear my groups' conversation. I was also thinking a limousine for the evening would make it extra special. So, where would you go for a big night out?

I like your sense of humor!


Drinks: Try the lounge at Bourbon Steak in Georgetown, The Source in Penn Quarter or Blue Duck Tavern in the West End.


Dinner:  So many choices! But you can't go wrong with the new Rasika West End for modern Indian in a lively atomsphere, Vidalia for some of our best southern fare, Marcel's for an over-the-top French experience or Fiola for Big Deal Italian.


Entertainment with dessert and/or drinks is trickier, but 701 has bass and piano and a supper club feel at night and its sister restaurant, The Bombay Club, offers a piano player with its kulfi and rice pudding.


I hope the above helps. Happy "30th anniversary," by the way.

I didn't see a post card from Detroit in the archives. Any suggestions from the chatters?

I hear the city and its dining scene are on the upswing. But I've never visited. Chatters?

Tom, I hate to wait until the last minute. I am attending an event at the Kennedy Center on the evening of August 3. We would like to dine before the performance and are looking for suggestions.

Not sure what your budget or tastes are, but for upscale, you can't beat the French-accented Marcel's, a short taxi ride away. For something more casual, I'd opt for the Big Easy-inspired Bayou on Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Submitting at the tail end, but wanted to echo your review of the Bartlett Pear Inn, having recently stayed, enjoyed dinner, and breakfast. It is a breath of fresh air - the hosts are gracious, the inn lovely, and the food was delicious. Hats of to Jordan and Alice for making our family visit to the Easton/St. Michaels area a very special stay.

Glad to get your rave. I very much enjoyed my return visits to the inn, one of the most charming places to find oneself in Easton.

Tom, suggestions for a pre-prom dinner for 8 high school seniors on a Friday in June in Arlington? Only one I can find that lists a pre-fixe is The Melting Pot in Ballston. Thanks. nancy of Arlington

I didn't have time to verify if the following suggestions offered fixed price menus, but lots of restaurants are good about doing so for groups of this size. I'd continue your search at Eventide, Lebanese Taverna, Liberty Tavern and Mala Tang, all in Arlington.

Moving to Alexandria soon - thanks for the tip about Light Horse! Any other must-visits, besides the Armstrongs' family of restaurants?

Part of the very good Neighborhood Restaurant Group, Evening Star Cafe and its slightly southern menu by Jim Jeffords is a must.

(...if you're lucky enough to be employed and healthy, that is!) Hi Tom, I'm taking a couple of weekdays off work soon. Where would you go if you wanted a nice, leisurely solo lunch in DC on a weekday? Money is less of a consideration than the quality of the cooking, fresh ingredients and welcoming atmosphere. Thanks!

The subject of today's First Bite column, the Garden Cafe in the National Gallery of Art, is utterly soothing, and the setting benefits greatly from the Catalan spread whipped up by Jose Andres to go with the Miro exhibit playing through mid-August.


For more of a blow-out, I'd go to Oval Room, Elisir, Boqueria, Fiola, Haven Pizzeria (okay, its in Bethesda) and The Source next to the Newseum.

I recently was out with guests and had a truly terrible dining experience, mis-cooked food made worse by really bad service. Throughout the night there were service errors (forgot drinks, forgot silverware, forgot butter for bread) all of which we took in stride. However the last straw was my order being cooked wrong. Once it was delivered (but before it was sampled) our server disappeared. In the 25 minutes it took for the other diners to eat their meal, our waitress never came back to where we were seated (on a patio) so I was not able to get it resolved and ended up having nothing to eat for a meal that night. When I made wave/eye contact with another server passing by, that person deliberately avoided my gaze and hurried off of the patio (this was not just my opinion, everyone at the table saw it and commented.) If I had been alone (or just with my spouse) I would have picked up my plate walked it through the restaurant until I found my server and embarassed her with a scene, but alas I had guests. When our server finally came back with the check, I pointed out that I had been unable to eat my meal, and questioned her about her about why she had neglected to come and see if anything was OK. Her answer was pathetic and basically we let her know of our disappointment via the tip (or basically a lack of tip.) At one point she mentioned getting the manager, but that never happend and after waiting for several minutes (again I was there with some guests) we decided to just leave and follow up afterwards. I sent the owner an email detailing the problems and letting them know that I could not imagine what they could do/say to get me to ever go back again, but thought they ought to know the experience of a first time guest. Is is reasonable to expect a response? What would a good response be? (if you want I can email you a copy of what I wronte them - it was very detailed but not rude.)

Ouch! The evening sounds like a disaster. As I repeatedly tell diners, the best time to solve a problem is when the problem arises and a supervisor can make things right, or at least better.


Some restaurant get more mail than others. I'd say a week is a fair amount of time to expect a response. If you want me to intervene/inquire, feel free to share your letter with me via my asktom link.

Hi, Tom, In your chat a few weeks ago, you kindly answered my question about restaurants in Las Vegas. As you suggested, my friends and I tried Twist by Pierre Gagnaire in the Mandarin Oriental, on Saturday, May 19. I made my reservations about a week and a half ahead of time, and the restaurant confirmed two days prior. Sadly, my group was disappointed in both the service and the food. I honestly think that if the service had been better, we wouldn't have been as picky about the food. Our reservation was for 9:00 p.m., and we were there about five minutes early. We weren't seated until almost 10, and we were given a table right next to the waiter's station. Management didn't do anything to acknowledge our wait. And normally, I'm not terribly picky about where I sit in a restaurant, but I do NOT want my dinner conversation peppered with, "Have you asked table 31 whether they want coffee?" That is especially true when dinner is running about $250 per person for a three course meal with (small) wine pairings. And we also shouldn't have had to ask for napkins about halfway through the first course. My dinner was OK. Not great, just OK. The cod cake in my appetizer was dry, my duck entree came with four 1mm thick slices of duck, and dessert (oddly) was actually five different dishes, three of which were good. I definitely won't be going back, as there are so many other good dining options in Las Vegas. Just for the record, the tasting menus at both Volt and Restaurant Eve are better values, for more and better food! Go D.C. dining scene!

Your report doesn't sound like the fine French restaurant I remember so well from my visit several years ago. Thanks for the fresh, if unfortunate, update.

Nice James Bond like pose today by the hot chef....can I smoke him?

I think Enzo Fargione's Significant Other might object!

I really enjoyed your TV Dinner videos. I know you're busy so I won't rake you over the coals, but what happened to them? Any chance we will see more in the future?

Thank you! Those TV Dinner segments were fun to make, but also fairly timely to write, shoot and produce. In the end, I thought my time was better spent writing than taping.


Just fyi: I've been doing some restaurant commentary for NBC4, based on my previews and Dining columns. They run every Friday on Channel 4, typically after 5:30 p.m.

If you're not worried about them falling in, I've seen families with kids enjoy Catina Marina in SW - right on the river, monument view and very casual vibe. If DC isn't crucial, Black Market, right next to the MARC train station in Garrett Park is a gigantic hit with train loving littles, has outside seating and a park nearby.

Both good family-friendly choices, I agree.

In a chat a couple weeks ago someone asked about the James Beard Awards. You mentioned that you were in the audience – do you maintain your anonymity when you attend events like this? Aren’t there lots of local chefs in attendance who could easily learn your identity?

While there was a sizable contingent of chefs and restaurateurs from our area at the event, I didn't see any of them except Bob Kinkead, and that was when he paraded across the stage as one of the gala's cooks. I also left the Lincoln Center right after the awards (didn't stick around to mingle, eat or drink).

Tom, Saturday we were seated in a crowded but relatively quiet restaurant next to a person who was talking very loudly, including saying disparaging things about the restaurant service. For example, when the waiter went to remove his empty plate, after his dining companion had stopped eating (signalling with her silverware position the "I'm finished") he very rudely asked if they were trying to rush him out. It was hard to enjoy our experience with this boor going on and on next to us. Short of asking to be reseated, which would have been a challenge in a crowded restaurant, what's a person to do? I am not a confrontational sort, and I know people can be unaware of how loud they are...but loud and loutish? It's so annoying!

 Your options are limited, as you point out, in a crowded dining room. Did you give him "The Eye" or otherwise signal your displeasure with his boorishness?


Let's throw the question out to industry insiders: How do you address such an awkward situation?

Tom's chat isn't appearing in the list of discussions on the National news front. Had to go to the schedule to find out if it was happening.

Sorry about that! The problem has been addressed.

Tom, we have reservations at an inn in Berryville, VA for our 30th anniversary. It's mid-way between the Ashby Inn and L'Auberge Provencal. If you had to chose between the two, which would you choose? Or is there someplace else we should go. If it helps to decide, I am a fairly adventurous eater, husband is not, and neither of us are particular fans of molecular gastronomy.

Having eaten at both Ashby Inn and L'Auberge Provencal in the last year, my vote goes to the cozier Ashby Inn. Its food is better, the wine service is better, the grounds are more appealing and, unlike L'Auberge, you won't feel as if you're dining in 1999. (The food is rather dated, I'm sorry to say.)

I was wondering, since you have to try to stay anonymous, obviously you don't pay with a credit card that says Tom Sietsema or even the Washington Post. I assume there is another name on the card (I know you cant say here what it is), but is it an WashPost employee's name, some other made up identity, or do you always pay with cash?

It depends on the situation. If I know for certain that a restaurant recognizes me, I tend to use my own credit card. If I'm unsure, I pay with cash, a companion's credit card or one of the 10 or so credit cards I keep with names other than my own.

I went to Bombay Club for the seventh anniversary of my 30th birthday, and it was wonderful. Though the food is not as good as Rasika (really, what is??), the atmosphere and the service were outstanding. Really, a top-notch night.

I was at Bombay Club recently as well, and I think chef Nilesh Singhvi's food is more interesting than its ever been. I can definitly tell the restaurant is related to Rasika.

Before our last Kennedy Center outing we went to La Chaumiere. The food was good, and everyone else there was dressed well too. (Nothing like wearing a suit to a restaurant where everyone else is in CIA t-shirts and sandals).

Another great Gallic choice, La Chaumiere! It's one of the few local sources for pike quenelles, among other French classics.

Two of my foodie friends are getting married and I'd like to get them a gift certificate (about 100$) as a present. Must be Metro accessible and in DC preferably. They are adventurous eaters. Any suggestions?

Great idea.  More and more these days, I like giving friends "experiences" over stuff you can wrap.


Some ideas: Columbia Room for stellar drinks, Masala Art for stylish Indian,  Zaytinya for Greek and Turkish small plates, Graffiato for fun Italian.

I visited last week and encountered something I wasn't thrilled with (as opposed to the food and atmosphere which I found to be lovely). At the end of my meal I had a little bit of diners remorse... sad that I didn't get try to the Lamb ravioli I decided to grab an order to-go. A one dollar charge was added to my bill as a carry-out fee. When asked, my waiter reminded me that DC requires a bag fee for carry-out... but I know for sure that the District doesn't require a whole dollar. I paid it and moved on, but it stuck in my craw for sure.

I thought the charge was five cents per bag? Maybe containers cost more? I'd investigate this if I had more time, but the clock is ticking toward noon ...

Just a shout-out for America Eats... Table for 5, on a Friday night, and the service was fun (knowledge, enthusiasm and wit). But the simple crab cake was absolutely fabulous. Moist, falling apart, sweet... and the "cold slaw" was the tangiest, freshest mixture of specialty tiny frizee greens... simply awsome! Whatever the chef wants to do with that space next time around, I do hope his crab cake survives the transition. (Oh, Note to self: even an empty-legged 16 year old male can't finish the Bison steak.)

A crab cake and cold slaw sound really good on a day like today. Too bad America Eats has to end its run, huh?

Tom- You seldom recommend Ris as an option near the Kennedy Center. We have found their happy hour (priced at $6.30!) and pre-show specials to be quite a good bargain. And it's just a short walk over to KC from there.

Short walk, true. But the food I've had at Ris of late has not been that interesting.

You have 10 credit cards with names other than your own? Is it that easy to just request a different name or did you have to explain why? Looks like you can just up and vanish with a different identity if this gig turns sour.

I got most of my (fake) names before it got difficult to get names other than my own. As long as the bills get paid, no one seems to care. But let me tell you, it was a real pain in the you-know-what when someone broke into my gym locker and went on a spending spree at Best Buy, Apple, Coach and a few other high-end stores with the help of Dave and Bill and Tyler and Ron and ...

I guess you weren't the messy eater I was in my teens. I am picturing rented tuxes with hot pot stains all over. FYI Ray's, when contacted in advance, has been amenable in the past to prix fix menus (of course that is always subject to change, especially there).

I threw in an Asian tip just as an alternative there, but I hear you, I hear you.

Anything good on site? if not, top rec's nearby? :-)

Your safest bet is probably the Italian-inspired Bond 45, with views of the Potomac in the background (depending where you sit).

Going to SF for four days in June. Need current recommendations for both high and low end dining suggestions. We are adventurous eaters!

  Off the top of my head:


 Zuni Cafe for some of the best Mediterranean food anywhere


Bar Agricole for some of the best cocktails in the city right now


Yank Sing for dim sum




Flower + Water for amazing pizza

You just discouraged someone from going to a restaurant with "dated" food but praised a place with "classic" food. What's the difference?

Dated = stodgy


Classic = worth preserving (and eating)

Tom, I've had a rough week at work and I'm hoping the healing properties of a good meal can pull me out of my funk. We're pretty adventurous eaters so any type of food is great. We would like to keep the price under $30 a head however. Most of all, I'm looking for something satisfying and easy. Any ideas? You've never steered us wrong!

Nando's for spicy chicken would make this diner feel better. So would the lunch deal at the bar at Proof, mini-burgers w/onion strings at Matchbox, a ceviche and a margarita at Oyamel, just about anything at Teaism, eaten near the Navy Memorial fountain.


Here's to a great rest of the week, folks. See you next Wednesday!

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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