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

May 10, 2017

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Hi! Love these chats - I haven't been to DC in years but your writing makes me want to head out there even more. Thanks also for your great writing on what makes LA a great food town, I agree! Question re reviewing new restaurants. Someone I know, a world class chef, just opened his first place (after decades of cooking for private, usually VIP, clientele and working in some of the country's best kitchens). The first review came out just 10 days after they opened! It was very positive overall, and the one hiccup they found they even admitted was not significant in the end. But 10 days...they're still getting the kitchen staff on the same page. I recall your saying you review after 3 times at a restaurant, and wondered about your thoughts on this. The review was in the major city's weekly. THANK YOU! Happy eating!!

 Thanks for the feedback on Los Angeles, which I praised in my Best Food Cities survey and wrote about recently regarding its vegetable worship.

 

When I first started out as food critic at the WP, and before the First Bite column was launched, I had a little rule about waiting a month to start the review process (three or so visits) for new restaurants. That's no longer the case.  With few exceptions, if the door is open and an establishment is charging full fare, I consider a place fair game. Keep in mind, previews in Food are different from critiques in the Magazine. The former are meant to be snapshots; the latter are star-rated. 

 

Good morning, everybody. Thanks for joining me today. What's on your mind today, food-wise? Talk to me. 

My husband is taking our daughter out of town for Saturday night, and I have the very rare (first time ever) opportunity to go out to a nice dinner solo without having to rush home or wake up early the next day. Can you recommend somewhere I could go to celebrate, but wont feel to out of place alone? Perhaps somewhere near Friendship Heights? Willing to go downtown but not to VA. Thanks!!

Friendship Heights isn't exactly a food lover's paradise. If I were you, I'd head downtown to the new Le DeSales, the subject of my Sunday review this coming weekend. I'm especially fond of the bavette, dry-aged beef in a glossy sauce based on Worcestershire, and the chocolate tart with espresso ice cream.  The place is cozy, too, outfitted with small, two-person booths near the bar that are perfect for solo diners.

Hi Tom - Thanks for doing these - they are always helpful and informative! I'm headed to Indianapolis next Monday and wanted to see if you or the chatters have lunch/dinner recommendations in Indianapolis? We've already been to St. Elmo's, so we've already checked the "landmark steak house" box. Otherwise, we're happy to do whatever - no dietary restrictions, no restrictions on cuisine! Thanks!

I've never been. Chatters? Can you assist a fellow food lover?

Hello. I would like to give my in laws a gift card to a restaurant in the Tysons Corner area. Do you have any recommendations? Any cuisine is fine. I am hoping to spend $75 to $100 and cover 2 drinks and 2 entrees. Thank you.

I continue to like what I see (and taste) at the fine Greek Nostos in Vienna, where the main courses average a budget-friendly $22.

Want to celebrate my 30th birthday with a traditional steakhouse experience... Typically dining out for us is at trendier places...small plates, small tables, big crowds, etc. and would like to take a more relaxed but refined approach to celebrating the occasion. There's a few name brands that come to mind, but is there something outside of a Ruth's Chris or Mortons that would fit the bill?

Among the smaller corporate brands, Mastro's and Ocean Prime do good jobs. Both come with the bonuses of good service, glam settings, comfortable noise levels and live music.  For what it's worth, I recall cocktails the size of kiddie pools and decadent lobster mashed potatoes at the former and choice people watching at the latter.

I'd like to take my husband to a nice dinner to celebrate a special occasion, and see literally 1-2 vegetarian options per menu, if that. Is there ANY restaurant in MoCo (or DC as a second choice) that pays attention to vegetarians who also want an upscale experience with great service? I know we're in a minority, but please! We usually eat Indian/Greek/Italian because they're veggie-friendly; just looking to try something new.

Probably your best bet in Bethesda is the convivial Kapnos Kouzina, where some of the highlights include several meatless dips, lemony stuffed grape leaves and a rousing mushroom moussaka.  If you venture into DC, there are a number of fine-dining establishments that offer vegetarian tasting menus, including the Indioan-accented Rasika, where six courses are $60.

I really thought it was very heavily DC weighted. Honestly, I did not find one place where I would like to eat. Price aside, there were too many dishes with ingredients and/or cooking techniques I was completely unfamiliar with. I am definitely a Great American Restaurant person as far as food and price. For a real treat, I choose LeMont in Pittsburgh for the amazing view.

Thank you for your feedback about my spring collection, but seriously? There wasn't a single restaurant that called to you?  Based on what you're telling me -- you like basic cooking -- I think La Tomate and Tadich Grill would appeal to you.

 

Speaking of the Italian eatery, La Tomate's owner, Natalina Koropoulos, tells me she just sold the Greek-themed Mourayo, also in Dupont Circle, to a Virginia restaurateur who plans to turn the space into an Irish tavern, Across the Pond, by the end of the month. 

Hi Tom - my in-laws are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, and my husband and I have celebrated our fifth. We're looking for a nice place to do a joint dinner to celebrate this month or next. My husband and I will eat just about anything - the more adventurous the better - but my in-laws are a bit less so in their tastes. They've loved meals at Circa, All Purpose, and Thai X-ing in the past. Any suggestions? Thanks!

Those are three very different kinds of dining experiences there! I'm high on Arroz right now: Moroccan and Spanish fare from celeb chef Mike Isabella. Another place that might be fun is the contemporary American Ripple in Cleveland Park. Both earned raves in my spring guide this year.

Hi Tom! A big fan of your chat. I'd like your opinion on restaurant protocol in an unexpected scenario -- the air conditioning going out on a 90-degree day. A couple weeks ago, on the first truly hot day of the season, I was part of a large group doing bottomless brunch at Boqueria. We were seated in one of the side rooms but were not told that the air conditioning was out in that room. It continued to get warmer despite the windows being open. By the point that it was truly uncomfortable, we were probably halfway through our meal and did not believe that it was worth it to complain and ask to move a 14-person group to a new table especially knowing it was busy there. However, apparently a server overheard one of the members of our group mentioning how much cooler it was by the restrooms and sent over a manager to our table (which had not been requested). The manager then just told us that the AC was out in our room and didn't make any other explanations or offers to move us, get fans, etc. I know we probably could have (and maybe should have) made a bigger deal of the situation, but I'd like your opinion as to what a restaurant should do when knowing on a hot day that the AC was out in part of its restaurant. Should it tell patrons about the AC problem so they can decide whether to still eat there? Not seat anyone in that section? Run to the nearest CVS and buy fans? Or are we all just spoiled by AC and is this just one of those things that happens?

Significant changes to the ambience of a restaurant call for notifying reservation-holders, and while I'm sympathetic to Boqueria -- who could have predicted August temperatures in April? -- it should have done *something* to make your stay more comfortable. Moving 14 people during brunch would have been difficult; securing a fan or two to stir the air in the side room strikes me as proper hospitality. 

Hi Tom, I'm happy to see that you included one of my faves, La Piquette in your dining guide. I am a regular and love the way that chef cooks everything (amazing apps, sweetbreads, delicious soft shell crabs and skate, even an excellent chocolate mousse). I love the atmosphere there. But why did you leave Le Diplomate, Blacksalt, and Chez Billy Sud off the list?

As I tried to explain above, the spring guide is much smaller than the fall collection and isn't devoted to favorites. Spring is more about taking the pulse of places -- some good, some not -- and seeing how they taste now.

Bombay Tandoor is also a worthwhile choice in the area.

Thanks for the idea.

Hi Tom, used to live in the DC area and now live in Chicago, but still love to read your chats (also was really into your 10 best food cities recap of Chicago). I wanted to share a lunch I had a little while back at the Bristol where the treatment by the management saved a disappointing lunch. I was eating with my wife and had ordered the chicken and biscuits. Halfway through the meal, I noticed one of the pieces of fried chicken was under-cooked. I mentioned it to the waitress who brought it back to the kitchen and then returned it to my table saying the kitchen staff said "it's just dark meat that's darker than normal, sorry". Well I didn't want to argue so I just ignored the piece, but the next one I cut into, was completely raw. The waitress completely agreed this time and showed it to the kitchen to have another made. This second dish had 3 raw pieces of fried chicken as well. At that point I didn't want another dish made, so the waitress comped the entree. I had basically decided at that point to never go back, but then the manager came to our table and asked how everyone was and noticing our hesitation, asked what went wrong. After explaining it, he spoke with his kitchen staff and came back out with profuse apologies and insistence that he was going to make sure it never happened again. He comped our entire meal at that point (we still left a tip on the original amount since the service was generally good). His personality and effort to make things right were the only reason we've gone back since, with no issues after that.

Thanks for sharing your story regarding your experience at the Chicago-based Bristol, and the kind words about my take on the Windy City.

 

I know I sound like a broken record, or the 2017 equivalent of one, but diners really need to speak up when they see something wrong. Ultimately, addressing missteps helps the restaurant and future diners; immediately, it can lead to a positive outcome for the aggrieved patron. No good business wants to see a customer leave unhappy.

I rarely make it to the best DC restaurants for dinner due to childcare needs. But I have a few weekdays off and would love to get a great lunch. Where can I go where the lunch experience would be similar to that of the restaurant's dinner? Any location/food type works. Thanks!

Book a table for noon at the Oval Room near the White House. The lunch menu, highlights of which include shrimp with (coconut) grits and chicken with spring accents, reads and eats like dinner. I feel the same way about Fiola in Penn Quarter, where, in addition to dishes such as lobster ravioli, there's the option of a light, three-course menu for $32.  Ask for "Maria's Menu," named for the chef-owner's slim spouse and business partner. 

We really like Iozzo's Italian restaurant. The caprese salad and the lasagna are particularly good. Keep in mind, the portions are huge!

That's the Midwest for you. Thanks for the tip.

I grew up there in the 1960s, and having been going back at least once a month to deal with a family health issue since last summer. The dining scene in Indianapolis has grown much more varied and sophisticated. I'm generally based on the northside, and would recommend Ristorante Roma in Carmel (a close-in suburb). Small menu, chef-owned, with homemade pasta and gelato. http://ristoranteromaindy.com/ In Indianapolis proper, the "Mass Ave Arts District" hums with restaurants, galleries, theater, etc. For further suggestions, check out the alternative weekly, Nuvo. http://www.nuvo.net/

More advice. Much obliged.

Hi Tom, We had an experience at a restaurant at an early dinner with my father-in-law who has memory issues and should not be drinking (but often forgets that). I ordered a cocktail along with my food order. The server then asked my father-in-law whether he wanted anything to drink with his dinner order (wine? Cocktail?) followed by painful moment of silence before my husband answered for him that he's fine. Spent the next loooong moments after our server left trying not to hear my husband argue with his dad over why he shouldn't be drinking while I entertain the kids. Just a reminder that a question of drink preference should remain the generic anything besides water? Please don't inquire about alcohol, specifically, because you never know how complicated that question might be.

You have my sympathy -- to a point. Servers aren't mind-readers and can't possibly know the situation at every table. They are also trained to ask about drinks as a matter of hospitality. Diners with issues concerning gluten, sugar, salt, alcohol -- whatever -- should take it upon themselves to talk to a server or manager ahead of being seated if they don't want to make a fuss in front of the entire party. 

I had submitted a post about our unfortunate Kapnos dinner a few weeks ago. As per your response, we got in touch with the GM and tried again this weekend! What a different experience! Not only were we treated like royalty, but honestly, even the food was better! One person ordered the lamb both times and commented that not only was it dry last time and juicy and delicious this visit, but the portion size was improved! We will happily return in the future!

I love happy endings. Thanks for the update.

Hi Tom! My husband's 30th birthday is coming up, and I'd like to take him out to dinner just the two of us after all of the family and friends celebrations are done. We don't eat out often, we're pretty casual people, and we love Asian cuisine - particularly Thai. Can you recommend something?

You don't mention where you reside, but since it's casual you're after, Thai Square on Columbia Pike is worth consideration. The setting is spare, but the food is good enough for the Thai embassy, which taps the outpost for catering.

Hi Tom - great dining guide and I am so glad to see the love for Ripple (which we love and has been disturbingly uncrowded). I'm wondering - no love for The Source?

The fall guide is generally a celebration of favorites in the DMV. It's also much larger than the spring guide, which looks back at previously-reviewed establishments.  I've devoted a lot of ink to the Source over the years. The pan-Asian restaurant recently changed chefs. I'm anxious to go back for a taste test. 

Tom, We've been to Al Ha-Esh in Rockville a few times now, and just wanted to let you in that there's good kosher eats in Rockville! The servers are knowledgeable and kind, and the atmosphere is modern, pleasant, and the only noise is from other patrons (it's easy to hold a conversation :-). We went on Sunday with our three daughters and had a wonderful meal. My youngest (5) always goes for the sweetbread kabobs (they use pancreas); she finishes them off with no problem. Our oldest (9) gets a hamburger (rare), and it comes out juicy and red (we've learned not to order the kids hamburger because it almost always comes out well-done). And our middle (7) sticks with the hot dogs. I had two wonderful lamb skewers (1 Shishlik, and 1 kabob). They were juicy, well seasoned, and came with some of the best green beans I've ever had (we ordered a side of them just to take home). Just wanted to give a shout-out to some delicious kosher eats, in an area that is desperate for more (and better) kosher restaurants.

This place -- news to me -- sounds terrific. Thanks for sharif news about an Israeli grill

I'm from Pittsburgh and have been to LeMont many times. I agree that the view is spectacular. But you go to LeMont for the view--not the food. Thanks for all you do for the DC food scene!

Thanks for clarifying.

We have reservations at Mirabelle for our 20th anniversary next week. We loved and still miss Palena, and have enjoyed Corduroy in the past, and Rasika and RIS. We're prepared to spend what Mirabelle costs. Are we on track? Should we try some fresher approach?

Keep that reservation at Mirabelle!  The tasting menu for two, with wine pairings, runs about $300, tip included. But you can dine for less ordering a la carte and (obviously) watching what you drink.  (Either way, you're in for a treat.)

I endorse your suggestion, but the poster might let their in-laws know that a terrific meal can be made entirely of shared mezze (small plates). My husband and I have dined there many times, sometimes with another couple, and have found that we enjoy sampling a variety of excellent flavorful dishes far more than committing to an entree.

You and I share similar tastes. If my job didn't require me to eat the full range of the menu, I'd assemble a meal from a bunch of appetizers.

Hi, Tom-- I think the reason most people avoid asking to talk to a manager is because they are afraid of confrontation. But management is generally truly interested in feedback, and if done in a helpful manner will generally result in a pleasant experience. I have asked for a manager several times, and things were always worked out pleasantly and professionally. Just be nice!

EXACTLY: Honey is always better than vinegar -- at least as far as restaurant complaints are concerned.

"Your Spring Dining Guide is useless/unfair/didn't name my fave restaurant! The Post should fire you!"

I am nodding and laughing. Because there is no one perfect dining guide. (As with cookbooks, if readers find two or three restaurants/recipes they like, I'm happy.)

$300 for tasting menu for 2? The website currently says $200 per person for the tasting menu with pairings.

I am so so sorry! I just remembered, my dining companion limited herself to two glasses of wine.

Sorry to hear that Mourayo is closing. While the cooking was a bit up and down, it was a reliable place for vegetarians, the staff was always welcoming, and you left thinking it was a good value. To have it replaced by an "Irish tavern"? How boring.

My thought as well. Mourayo was very good when it first opened, but seemed to stop trying in the last year or so.

Hey, Tom. Had a lovely dinner at Joselito last night based on your favorable notes in the First Bite column from January. The food was delicious (especially the tuna crudo and the manila clams), but the place seemed strangely empty and the service a bit slow. I still enjoyed myself and found the staff gracious if a bit hands off. Any change in opinion since you first stopped by this winter?

I haven't been back since my preview. I'd be curious to hear from others on the Spanish eatery. 

Hi Tom! Any recommendations for Nashville? I am headed there for the first time and have heard great things about the food scene! Open to any types of food.

My last trip there was three years ago. Here's my postcard from then. Fun times!

"The chef-owner's slim spouse" Um...what? Why do you need to tell us about Maria's looks? You wouldn't refer to someone as "their big, round spouse" (I hope!) or "his slim-hipped husband." That was a weird comment, Tom.

Didn't mean to be sexist or weird there. But the menu was created because Maria Trabocchi wanted to eat her husband's food and not gain weight. That's what I was thinking as I was typing and BY THE WAY, this is a live chat and the host is addressing as many questions as quickly as he can. ;)

Hi Tom, absolutely loved your Spring Dining Guide. Some surprises I didn't expect to see (but happy I did)! Wanted to see if you'd seen the inside of Peter Chang's new restaurant "Q by Peter Chang" in Bethesda? The space looks phenomenal. Excited for "Q" to open in June and I'm hoping more restaurants will follow suit. Any plans to swing through Bethesda and check out some of the new restaurants? Bethesda foodies would love to see (read about) you out here. We love your chats!

Fingers crossed, Chang's latest, and most sophisticated, restaurant opens yet this month, according to Bethesda MagazineYou can be sure I'll check out Q early on for a preview. 

 

Bethesda has seen some nice dining developments of late, including the Spanish-themed TapaBar.

I am an older widow who loves to eat out, and have no personal qualms at all about dining alone at a restaurant, but would like to know what the proper etiquette is for a table where there is only one occupant. I feel like I should tip very well to ensure that the server doesn't feel cheated at only having to serve a lone person at a table, and I also do not want to be treated like a persona non grata when dining alone. Do you have any advice for solo diners?

I think restaurants appreciate it when diners show up with a smile, happy to be there and open to a good time. I know it sounds basic, but you wouldn't believe how many diners show up with chips on their shoulders.

 

You sound delightful. If you ever want to join me on a review, send me a request (tom.sietsema@washpost.com)

Tom, your suggestions were Greek and Indian. The poster said they were looking to try something other than that.

My apologies.  Chef Rob Weland at Garrison on the Hill has a novel way of treating vegetables. So does Cedric Maupillier at Convivial. For a splurge, the Japanese-themed Kobo in Chevy Chase yields a night to remember, too.

With hot restaurants sometimes a solo diner can get a seat easier. I have eaten many times at Rose's by myself and haven't had to wait for a seat. I'll walk up and ask to sit at the Chef's counter, often there is a seat immediately available. I agree that servers like customers who enjoy good food and are happy to be there.

So true. I've dined solo at some of the best places in the world, sans reservation but with a hopeful attitude. ("I'd love to join you for dinner tonight, but I don't have a reservation. Might you have space for one this evening?") Hey, it worked at Le Bernardin in NYC on a Friday night!

 

That's  a wrap for today, folks. Thanks for joining me. And thanks for your patience. I'm clearly under-caffeinated this a.m.

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 sidewalk.com; 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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