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

May 16, 2018

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 Tom! I promise I did as thorough a google search as I could before coming to you with this, but a question from a few weeks ago regarding your friendships with other food critics got me wondering why none of the other critics you mentioned go as far out of their way as you do to preserve their anonymity. I love your decision to work incognito and I definitely appreciate the labor of love that would be purging one's entire visual internet footprint, as well as the honesty it provides. When and why did you choose to go to the effort when so many others do not? How much do you think this effects the quality/reliability of the work food critics do?

As long as I've been reviewing restaurants, I've opted out of just about every photo session except for family gatherings or scenarios with close friends. So my attempts at anonymity  go back to the 1990s in San Francisco, where I wrote for the Chronicle for four years. 

 

Let me be clear: I rarely disguise myself anymore. The time it takes to do that convincingly is time I'd rather spend writing or reporting, frankly. And yes, a number of restaurants have photographs of me on display. But I think the element of surprise is important, so I never book a table in my own name, for instance. 

 

Along with Pete Wells and Bill Addison, I'm really one of the last food critics to try to dine under cover, and as old-fashioned as the attempt is, I still think there's some value in not announcing yourself or letting restaurants know you'll be coming in. 

 

When I ran into Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times at Noma in February, one of the first questions he asked was how I got a reservation. "The old-fashioned way," I told him. I went online like everyone else and competed for a rare seat using a name other than my own. "And you?" I asked. He smiled and shrugged, as if to say "I'm Jonathan Gold." Noma reached out to him with a reservation. (They did that with me, too, but I declined the offer.) 

 

AN UPDATE: Last chat, a poster asked if  Spoken English, the standing-room-only dining adventure within the Line hotel, could accommodate  diners who might not be able to endure the situation for serious physical reasons. Chef Erik Bruner-Yang responded that the menu would be offered in the main restaurant (within the lobby) -- for disabled customers.  I should have made that more clear in my response. Apparently, six or so guests showed up with a screen shot of the chat and insisted on being served, despite not having serious physical limitations. To which I say:  Really, people? 

 

Good morning, everyone. I'm looking forward to spending the next hour with you today. What's on your mind, food-wise?

 

It used to be that newspapers -- the Post included -- would wait several months before reviewing a new restaurant. That has changed. You often do First Bites very soon after a restaurant opens. But a restaurant's early days may not be indicative of what is to come. Some may certainly improve with experience. But the opposite can also be the case. Maintaining consistency over time is one of a restaurant's greatest challenges. Restaurant Groups often pull their best employees from some of their other venues to help open new eateries. Some keep a very special eye out for early critics and bloggers . I note that your Spring Guide assesses a few of the new restaurants differently that your first take (ie...Kith & Kin). Do you ever have second thoughts about these early reviews and whether they might be premature?

I realize opening a restaurant is a challenge, even in the best of circumstances, but I also know readers, who typically pay full fare even early on, want an out-of-the-gate take to figure out if a new restaurant is worth their time and money.

 

First Bite reviews are meant to be snapshots of a young establishment, for better or worse. In a lot of cases, those  preview subjects go on to get full star-rated critiques in the Magazine.  I'm not sure what's unfair about that process?

Hi Tom, Just a quick note of thanks for the recommendation of Tavern at Rare. My partner and I recently made the sojourn to Eye Street based off the Spring Dining Guide and were quickly impressed with the level of attention from the staff, quality of meal and general ambiance that the Tavern provided. She dined on the chef-special Wagyu beef burger, and I enjoyed a scrumptious, server-recommended pork-chop. Originally being from the South I thought I knew my way around a corn pudding, which my chop was paired with. The dichotomy of sweet and savory this combo provided had me second-guessing my dear old granny's recipe! Many thanks to the staff of Tavern at Rare for making date night a culinary blast.

That sounds just like the restaurant that landed the No. 9 spot on my Top 10 list of best new restaurants in the spring guide. Thanks so much for the feedback. Readers are my eyes and ears!

You always say if you're unhappy with your experience in a restaurant to always let the manager know. But what if everything else is fine but the food is just so unacceptable? Is is better to complain to the chef directly? I ordered beef tacos at a chain restaurant in Annapolis. I was served three soft tacos for, I believe, $12. The tacos were heaped with shredded cabbage and carrots and a single slice of beef about a millimeter thick and about 2 inches long and less than an inch wide. That's it! One slice of beef per taco. I told the waiter who was apologetic but did not comp it. I buried my sorrow on dessert. Should I have told the chef?

I have this image in my head of you carrying your sad taco back to the kitchen, asking for the chef and filing a complaint during regular service. PLEASE, DON'T! Ever. Issues like the one you write about are best brought to the manger if you don't get help from your server.

I enjoyed your recent report from the new Noma, but did you eat anywhere else when you were in Copenhagen? Any recommendations for someone who will be there soon without a reservation at Noma?

Sure! Noma is but one of many memorable dining experiences in Copenhagen. Other terrific choices include Barr, where the original Noma was located; Fiskebar for a seafood-rich menu best eaten at the bar; and Palaegade a handsome outpost for classic Danish smørrebrød, or open-faced faced sandwiches.  Safe travels.

How do you pronounce your name?

SEET-sa-muh. And thank you for asking.

Tom -- several months ago, I had the opportunity to have a very, very good dinner at Ocean Prime in Dallas. Turns out there's another one here in DC. Have you been? Any thoughts?

Speaking of restaurants that go from fair to better, Ocean Prime in DC is a prime example.  I didn't care for it much at launch, but time -- and a few nice lunches -- have changed my impression. Easy to get in, pleasant service, good burger, etc.

Hi Tom. Tell me, do you ever go the food truck route and evaluate them? Wondered if this trendy dining experience is one you tackle and what your thoughts are on the trend?

Now and then I check them out, sure, but I haven't had anything in recent months that compelled me to tell a large audience in the Post.

First off, these don't have chefs, they have cooks. They work from a set of iron-clad instructions, sent from corporate, about how each item is to be prepared - and that's IF it didn't come from a central commissary, pre-made and re-heated. The manager is usually the person in charge, both front and back of house, so you can complain to them. They "should" comp the item, but don't expect a change in how the food is prepared. There is no flexibility there. Everyone in the place dances to the tune that the corporation plays. Yep, been there, danced that.

Thank you for illuminating us today. (In my survey looking at the best-known casual chains, I found standardization to be both a positive and a negative.

I doubt this is a pool that Spoken English wants to wade into. What counts as "serious" enough to warrant the accomodation? Is management going to discuss a patron's physical limitations with him or her and then render a determination? Many individuals have physical limitations that are not apparent from looking at them. There are also many people who can manage to physically stand for x amount of time, but the resulting fatigue will mean they will have limited their ability to accomplish other daily tasks. Is that sufficient for an accomodation? How is the restaurant going to police such issues?

Can of worms. And diners trying to take advantage of a situation. I get tired of it sometimes! And I'm sure chefs do, too.

 

Maybe the *fair* policy is to only serve diners who can comfortably stand for the duration of a meal. As we've seen with no-reservations takers and others, some restaurants aren't for everybody. I know that sounds undiplomatic, but ...

My husband's birthday is coming up in a couple weeks, and I'd like to take him out for a nice dinner. He looooooooves pasta, so someplace with standout pasta dishes might be ideal (but I hasten to clarify that he is an open-minded noodle eater--for example, he loves the noodle dishes at Maketto--and an absence of noodles isn't necessarily a dealbreaker in any event). We are more or less pescatarian, and in our mid-30s if it makes a difference. We'd prefer to stay in the District but could travel for something really great. The restaurant doesn't need to be super fancy, but I'd like it to feel like a special birthday spot. One option I thought of is Masseria--would you recommend it? Any other possibilities that stand out? Thanks so much!

I just took a high school friend I hadn't seen in decades to Centrolina in CityCenterDC, partly because I love the airy dining room and the spot-on service, but mostly because I wanted to show off the many talents of chef-owner Amy Brandwein. My pal oohed over a salad of artichokes prepared four different ways and ahhed over orrechiette tossed with tiny sweet scallops, chile flakes and greens.  Just as wonderful: sea bass cooked over a wood fire and staged on asparagus. 

There was a Robert Sietsema who was the food critic at the Village Voice in NYC for many years. Any relation?

Yes. We are distant cousins who share unusual occupations (and the occasional meal in New York and Washington). Robert Sietsema is now one of three full-time critics working for Eater out of New York. His focus is on foreign cuisine.

Your answer to the person asking about whether the manager or waiter should hear complaints about a skimpy taco has one of my favorite typos. You said such complaints are "best brought to the manger." Now I have images of the sweet baby Jesus bestowing forgiveness on restaurant employees for putting only one slice of beef in their tacos.

I'm laughing. I'm LAUGHING.

Freudian slip? ;-)

You kids know I never had a typing class, right?

Tom, I know most people write in and ask you for recommendations, but I'd like to reverse that today and offer you a recommendation instead. Next time you're visiting Worthington, please consider taking a 35-minute drive west to Luverne and visit The Bluestem (http://www.the-bluestem.com). A young local guy named Skyler Hoiland trained at Le Cordon Bleu, but came back home to open The Bluestem. Great story and wonderful food.

Awesome. I'll be going back to southwestern Minnesota this summer for my nephew's wedding and I'll aim to squeeze in a trip to Luverne to check out your recommendation. The Swedish bison meatloaf sounds right up my alley. Many thanks. 

Tom, I joined a group of five and dined at Chloe last night. We really enjoyed our meal. The food and wine were fantastic, having really cool options for both. The service was knowledgeable and attentive. I feel everything was priced appropriately. We chose it following your ranking in the Spring Dining Guide, so hat tip to you. As you know the menu is predominately small plates, but with three entree-sized portions, half a chicken, a pork chop, and a whole fish. We ordered 12 of the smaller dishes (doubling some) and the half chicken and the pork chop. The chicken and pork chop came out as a whole entree-sized portion. I feel it would have been appropriate for them to carve the pork chop and chicken to make sharing the entree-sized portions easier. It wouldn't necessarily have to be carved table-side, but I just think it would have been nice so I didn't have do this at the table. I am curious about your thoughts, and if you or the readers think it would have been appropriate to ask if the staff carve the entree into shareable portions.

Smalls plates that are going to be shared require a pro-active approach on the part of the diner ("Hey, since we're sharing, could the kitchen slice the pork into four pieces?") and the server ("Would you prefer we apportion that for you, or do you want to do it yourselves?")  Not all of us mind doing the slicing ourselves, and I can imagine some dishes that might lose their appearance once divvied up, but that's just my two cents.

Hi Tom, thanks for doing these chats. I'm not in DC near as much as I'd like but I learn a good deal on Wednesdays. My question has to do with the restaurant scene and its adoration of celebrity chefs. Do you sense a cooling towards these type of venues where so much depends on the reputation and brand of one person? Do you think there is frustration from diners in regards to over hype and expectations along with too hefty of a price tag just because there's a name on it? It feels like it's the food equivalent of wearing a luxury brand.

It depends on the chef and the restaurant and his or her (ahem) behavior.  Consider Jose Andres, who is out saving the world when he's not popping in to check on one of his many Washington restaurants, including the novel Minibar, which is costly but also a one-of-a-kind dining experience.

Hi Tom, my parents and in-laws will be taking my wife and me out for my birthday (six total). Any places with prix fix, multi-course menus that you can suggest? Chiko would be perfect as it isn't super expensive, but they can only accommodate four people. Tastes aren't overly adventurous but I think that the parents would appreciate tasting a lot of different things. Probably a hard question given they aren't overly adventurous and we don't want to break the bank (Pineapple and Pearls, Mini Bar, etc)... Thanks!

Good and conservative (but not too) and inexpensive?  The description applies to the $32, three-course pre-theater deal offered at 701 off Pennsylvania Ave. NW.  The catch: you have to order it by 6:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 

My girlfriend and I almost always prefer to sit at the bar; typically no wait, quick service, less formal. Even on rare occasions when we don't order booze, it's fun to experiment with non-alcoholic specialty drinks. What restaurant bars would you recommend for dining?

We are kindred spirits. I like eating at the bar as well, for just the reasons you list. Some of my favorite destinations include Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan,  Buck's Fishing & Camping near the original Politics & Prose, the aforementioned Centrolina in CiyCenterDC,  the aforementioned Tavern within Rare Steak and Seafood downtown, Mi Vida in the Wharf and the white-hot Fancy Radish in the Atlas District. 

Hey Tom - this has happened to me 3 times just recently and it's starting to bug me and I wanted your take. I've had reservations at restaurants for a table and the hosts have not brought me to a table but at stool seating in front of the chef's cooking. Each time I've had to ask for an actual table. I wish hosts would ask if that's OK with you prior to making your way across the restaurant. What's your take?

Has this become a trend? Because yours is the third complaint I've received in recent weeks about not being seated in the dining room proper, but in a bar or at a counter. Restaurants should know that most diners think a confirmed reservation means "in the dining room." 

1. long day at work, I'm tired or 2. just don't feel like standing? If you do, please: retake the grade school lessons on context clues and reading comprehension in general.

God bless you!

Love the column, Tom. Any ideas (aside from Charlie Palmer and Thai X-ing) that don't have a corkage fee? Planning a work dinner and would like to bring some wines that we bought collectively on a work trip. Thanks!

Et Voila!, the Belgian charmer in the Palisades, waives its corkage fee on Monday nights. Dino's Grotto, the Italian eatery, lets customers bring their own wine Sunday through Tuesday for no extra charge. 

I beat my group to the restaurant so I grabbed a seat at the bar and ordered a drink while I waited. One of the wait staff came by holding a plate of bread and asked me if I wanted it. I said sure. When my group came I closed out and saw that I was charged 3.50 for the bread. We came there for a celebration and were planning on spending significantly more than that so it didn’t seem worth making a fuss about. But I just wanted to warn my fellow diners, that nice lady offering you bread isn’t telling you the whole story! (The actual meal was delicious!)

Duly noted. The way you describe this scenario, it sounds as if the server's gesture felt more like an invitation than an act of salesmanship. I guess the best policy is to always ask before accepting, because I've experienced similar in places that simply ask "Sparkling water?" in a way that suggests the H2O is complimentary (when it fact it ends up on my bill). 

My Husband's 40th birthday is around the corner and he requested that we go out to a lounge or bar that has a view with live music. I am looking for piano and vocalist or a music group playing oldies or even something you could really get up and dance to. We went to a place in San Francisco called Top of the Mark about 7 years ago that we loved. It had a great view that we could sit and enjoy our cocktails looking out to the city. That evening they had a 4 person group that was singing oldies that was great to dance to. Does a place like this exists in D.C.?

I'm going to throw this question out to today's audience, because I know of no such establishment. 

I'm going to be in DC in June. A friend lives between Baltimore & DC. Her house is about an hour away from my hotel. Looks like College Park might be a good 1/2 way point. Something moderately priced, good for conversation. Ethnic cuisine is fine, but not essential.

The most original restaurant in College Park is Old Maryland Grill, which got the No. 10 spot on my recent list of best new restaurants. The big appeal there is the focus on the food and drink of the state, from cocktails to coddies. 

Hey Tom, my siblings and I decided to stop giving each other gifts for birthdays and instead we go out for a cool dining experience. Nothing as expensive as Minibar but something that would be fun for a group of 6 and more interesting than just a normal dinner. We have done Maydan, ChiKo and Metier recently. Any suggestions?

That's an impressive -- and varied -- lineup of dining experiences you have under your belt. I'd add to the list the new All-Purpose near the Navy Yard for pizza and a waterfront view; Tiger Fork for Hong Kong-style cooking in what looks like a night market in Blagden Alley; and Unconventional Diner for updated comfort food near the convention center. 

I think the critical issue is whether the celebrity chef is able to train the rest of the staff to perform at the same high level on days when s/he isn't there.

For sure. That was an issue I had at the recently reviewed 1789 in Georgetown, where I could tell which night the chef took off.

Do you think opentable/online reservations result in subpar seating? I have had a few recent occasions where after making an online reservation we seemed to be seated in the less desirable spots even if the restaurant was not that busy. Usually I ask to move without much fuss, but I wonder if it is a standard practice.

I have seen no evidence suggesting that's the case.

Hi Tom - We have friends who will be visiting DC for a few days in June, staying in the National Harbor area. They have two very well-behaved kids (12 and 8). What would you recommend as kid-friendly iconic DC dining experiences? Thanks.

Are they coming into the District? If so, I'd recommend Sweet Home Cafe inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture;  Jaleo for Spanish tapas in a colorful environment; and Millie's for lobster rolls and ice cream. See also my response to "Cool Group Dining Experience," above.

Is there a way to ask your server if something is free (refills, sparkling water, etc.) without sounding, well, cheap?

"Just curious. Is that on the house or?"

Thanks for taking my question! I love your weekly chats. I recently dined at a DC establishment and found my server could not understand nor speak English beyond basic conversation and the items on the menu (as written). I had questions but she didn’t understand them and I didn't bother trying to get answers because I didn't want to make her uncomfortable. I was a little bummed because it was an expensive meal and it didn’t come out the way I wanted because I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. I feel that maybe I should have said something to the manager, but she was trying and seemed extremely nice. Is this a problem that you or anyone you know has ever run into?

Servers need to be able to accurately describe menu items and answer basic questions about what diners should expect. I realize its hard to find good staff now, thanks to the profusion of restaurants, but a firm grasp of English is imperative. You owed it to yourself and future customers to address the issue with a supervisor. At the very least, another server or a manager should have been tapped to answer your questions. 

Hi Tom! My husband and I love eating out (went through your fall guide when I was pregnant). Now we have an adorable baby, but haven’t had a sit down meal at a restaurant in months. I’m worried she’ll get fussy or the restaurant won’t be super accommodating/patient. Do you have any recommendations for baby friendly restaurants in the DC or MD area?

Isn't  one of the best times to take kids to restaurants when they're babies? Don't they sort of sleep through the hum of an active dining room? Based on what a lot of parents have shared in this forum over the years, loud restaurants tend to be baby-friendly. You might consider dipping back into the scene with places including Espita Mezcaleria in Shaw, Alta Strada on K St. NW or Le Diplomate on 14th St. NW. In consideration of other diners, one of you should also be prepared to take a fussy baby outside for the duration of any major screaming or crying. (I'm bracing myself for the haters now ..)

Not literally, but WOW, I had an incredible experience dining at Spark last night. In my reservation, I indicated we were celebrating a birthday. The hostess kindly wished my boyfriend a happy birthday, and when he stopped in later to ask about the rums used in their drinks, she had the bartender pour him two shots of their high quality rums. THEN they proceeded to make his subsequent drinks with the high end rum at no upcharge. Our server was gracious and funny. And the food was excellent. The ox tail melts in your mouth, and the Urban Legend was a fun dessert to end the night. Thank you so much for including this gem in your Spring Dining Guide!

Spark lights my fire.

Hi Tom, just a reminder for restaurants to PLEASE keep their menus online current. Had a lunch reservation at Addies for Saturday for an early Mothers Day and due to dietary reasons decided I would eat before and keep the rest company. Online it didn't even show grilled chicken as an option to add to salad. We get here and the menu is totally different - including chicken as a salad option. It's unfortunate because there are plenty of options I could have eaten but ate right before coming. They lost out on an additional paying customer.

Thanks for venting. Let's hope your post motivates guilty parties to update their online profiles. No winter dishes in spring and no Christmas Eve menus when it's shorts weather! 

 

That's a wrap for today. Let's do it again next week, same time. Thanks for the lively back and forth.

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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