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

May 23, 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.

Are there any former trends you would like to see make a comeback? A certain type of cuisine or a dish that was super popular 30 years ago but nonexistent now? Maybe a type of service or the way customers dressed or behaved in restaurants? Just wondering . . .

I miss ordering three, well-paced courses! I'm getting tired of small plates and the random manner in which they tend to be delivered.

 

Chatters, feel free to weigh in on what you miss from yesteryear.

 

Happy Wednesday, everyone, and thanks for joining me on -- say it isn't so! -- a glorious almost-summer day.  If your plans this weekend include cooking or an al fresco meal, consider the three-bean salad I whipped up for a Food section grill party earlier this month. The recipe, which I got from my mom and can be made days in advance, is a crowd-pleaser. It can also withstand a hot day. A two-fer!

 

So, what's on your mind today? Share away.  I have to leave a bit early today, but I'll try to fit in as many questions as I can in the next 40 minutes or so.

 

Tom, Hello. I enjoy reading the weekly chats and your reviews. I try to be an earth friendly consumer, and in the last several years I refuse 'plastic straws' when eating out. However, restaurants often serve beverages with the straw in the glass (my fault when I forget to say something first). Plastic straws are not recyclable. Some cities out West are taking steps to ban them. Will Washington restaurants consider asking whether a patron wants a straw first, or perhaps order recyclable paper straws instead? (For those who do not know, we use 500+ million plastic straws every day in America, and most of those end up in our oceans, polluting the water and killing marine life. An estimated 71% of seabirds and 30% of turtles were found with plastics in their stomachs. When they ingest plastic, marine life has a 50% mortality rate.)

Thanks for this public service announcement. Danny Meyer, the admired founder of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, is a force behind the cause, too. He's begun phasing in biodegradable straws in all his restaurants. 

How do you rate Tae Strain's new menu?

Funny you should ask. My updated review of David Chang's restaurant appears in this Sunday's Magazine (online as of this morning). The new chef has transformed the restaurant.

Is there some little thing you wish a restaurant would do to enhance the dining experience, or that a restaurant has done and you thought, that's a great idea? If I had one wish, I wish restaurants would have those tiny tins of Maldon salt that you could use and then take with you. I know chefs generally season the food the way they want it to taste, but I love a little hit of Maldon on almost everything, even dessert! What other small, but unique, touches would make you say, wow, they thought of everything!

Let's see. I love hot (moist) towels with any dish that's particularly messy ... sufficient lighting, both to read the menu and see the food ... coat hooks under the counter of a bar .... restaurant specials that are printed on paper, especially if there are more than two or three  ... cocktail menus offered to everyone at the table .... gosh, I could go on and on here.

 

Readers, what special touches do you appreciate?

I had bariatric surgery a year ago and the number one thing I miss is a really good burger. A perfectly toasted bun, lined with mayo and bbq sauce, with cheddar, bacon and a medium patty. Is there any place in town that serves a slider that isn't totally dried up or a kids burger that actually has good toppings? I just can't find a 4-6 oz (total) replica of a good burger joint burger!

I adore the mini-burgers garnished with fried onions at Matchbox, which you could probably request with the fixings of your choice. But I'm not sure any of the branches serve fewer than three on a plate. Couldn't hurt to explain your situation and ask, though.

Hi, Tom, Love your chats, even though we haven't lived in DC in 20 years (just to date me, our favorites were Kinkead, 1789, the French Bistro on M street, Citronelle, La Chaumiere, and the inn at Little Washington, plus the ethic places in Arlington). We will be in DC in September for a few days on our way to celebrate my 80th birthday in Sicily and I'd love a couple of suggestions for dinner in the DC area. We're true foodies and love a good wine list. Thanks! --margaret

Blasts from the past, some of those restaurants are! For a reunion dinner in the District, I suggest you celebrate at Fiola  for haute Italian in Penn Quarter; Del Mar for grand Spanish in the Wharf; or Kinship for modern American near the convention center.  Early best wishes on the milestone birthday!

I'm going to San Francisco next month, and can't decide between Rich Table or Zuni Cafe for Sunday night dinner with my husband (we are going to Californios on Saturday night). Which would you recommend more, in terms of tastier dishes and dessert?

Regular readers of my work, including this chat, can tell you Zuni Cafe is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. I even wrote a Valentine to it's cookbook, written by the late, great Judy Rodgers.

We had dinner at a favorite restaurant in Annapolis last night, next to a table with two toddlers. Granted the restaurant is on the casual side but still the screaming (not anger, not sadness) just pleasure screaming of the toddler was a bit much. Th restaurant was packed, we got the table we got (note to self: next time sit in the bar area). Granted it was a regular Tuesday night dinner out, we weren’t celebrating a birthday or an anniversary but is it too much to ask for some civility? When the family was leaving, the server said to the little noisemaker in a happy voice, “you sound just like the Blue Angels.” Tom, I would much rather have had the Blue Angels flying overhead all night. I don’t understand the lack of courtesy towards fellow diners when it comes to people brining toddlers to a restaurant and letting them scream. I get that couples want a night out, who doesn’t? But please hire a sitter or don’t go if your children like to scream and you think it’s cute or normal. It’s not. And I hope they tipped well, their table was a mess.

As much as I like to see young families eating together in restaurants (because a meal together can teach little ones a lot about sharing, how to handle utensils, etc. ), parents need to know their charges' tolerance levels for outings and act accordingly. Not all infants/toddlers/adolescents behave the same. Screaming toddlers are not cute. They're disruptive. And the parents should have acted immediately to stop the noise pollution, either by taking them outside until they quieted down or asking for the check and departing then and there. 

One of our favorites, the more closed Jean-George Vongerichten's Spice Market in NYC, used to always start the meal with lemon-scented warm towels, even though the restaurant wasn't necessarily fancy-schmancy. Loved that and missed that old haunt a lot.

I second that opinion.

Had dinner at Maydan, 5pm reservation on Sunday. Food was fantastic. However, was done with entire meal including desert at 6:15pm. With paying for a babysitter I like to take longer dinners with my wife. Should I let servers know I want to take my time? I didn't feel rushed but definitely would have liked a slower paced dinner.

Good that you didn't feel rushed at one of my Top 10 favorite new restaurants. Unfortunate that you didn't inform your server that you hoped to enjoy a leisurely meal as soon as you settled in. Especially in hot spots around town, I've noticed brisk pacing.  If you don't want dinner to be done in 20 minutes, best to say something.

I had lunch with a friend in Georgetown last week. My friend recently suffered a foot injury and is using a mobility device, meaning she can't use stairs. We had a difficult time finding a restaurant that could acoomodate us, as most of the historic buildings (understandably) do not have to be ADA-compliant. I was not able to find information about accessibility on ANY restaurants' websites. I found this surprising and frustrating. Could you put a plea out there to have restaurants advertise this type of information?

Consider your plea passed along. In your case, I would have called restaurants I was interested in and inquired about stairs or other obstacles to entry (door width, etc.) in the dining room and elsewhere.

Tom, I know you have addressed this topic in previous chats. I had dinner with a friend on Friday night at Fig & Olive (reservation at 6:45). From the minute we sat down, we were rushed. I am always aware and careful not to overstay my welcome in a busy restaurant where I know they need to turn tables but this was ridiculous. We were given less than 20 seconds to look at the drink menu before we were asked what we wanted and probably less than 3 minutes to look at the dinner menu. They didn't even ask my friend if she wanted another glass of wine! The table next to us was empty for at least 20 minutes before we left. What should we do in this situation? It put a damper on a nice evening.

See my response to the Maydan customers, above. And keep your menus propped open, in front of you, a signal to the waiter that you're not yet ready to order. 

I love when restaurants freely offer tastes of their wines by the glass to help you order the one you'll most enjoy. Also, leaving carafes of water on the table for thirsty diners.

Yes and yes.

My husband and I are going to OMG this weekend for date night (happens very rarely) and are so excited to try the Smith Island cake that your review (and others' reviews) recommends. Any suggestions for appetizers and main courses? As non-native Marylanders, we are not familiar with what the local specialties are, other than crab and Old Bay seasoning, so we don't have any basis for comparison. Thanks!

Think seafood -- coddies, oysters, crab imperial -- and fried chicken at the ode to Maryland in College Park, which also offers a list of drinks and wines that originated in the state. 

Hey Tom - I'm about to begin my post-grad life with a new job and big move to DC in July (yay!). In early June my future roommates, parents, and I will be taking a trip to apartment-hunt. We will be staying in the Bloomingdale area. Any good recommendations for a party of 5? Nothing too outrageously expensive but open to something different. Would also appreciate somewhere accommodating with food allergies (no nuts, shellfish)

The pride and joy of Bloomingdale is the Italian-themed Red Hen. Be sure to make a reservation well in advance; the restaurant is very popular. Nearby, check out the newer Spark at Engine Company 12 for Caribbean cooking in a former fire house. 

Hi Tom, reservations are super hard to come by! Is it possible to dine at Maydan at the bar on a weeknight without a reservation?

It *probably* is if you stand in line before the restaurant opens (at 5 p.m.) and you're among the first group to grab first-come, first-serve bar stools. 

Tom, quick business trip but I can choose breakfast and/or lunch and/or dinner. A few great beers or cocktails to end the day would be perfect. What are your stars in this Lone Star State city? Cuisine/price point/location all flexible. Thanks!

Houston was the unexpected surprise on my journey around the country to identify the 10 Best Food Cities in America three years ago.  As one discerning palate there told me, “If L.A. and New Orleans had a baby, it might be Houston.”

 

For breakfast, try Pondicheri Bake Lab for sunny Parsi eggs. For lunch, consider Helen Greek Food & Wine. Book dinner at Coltivare for pizza or pasta or El Real for honest Tex-Mex, then end the day with a cocktail at Anvil Bar & Refuge or Julep.

Hi Tom, the last couple times my mom and I were in DC we ate at the museum's cafe and enjoyed it. Within the last six months or so, you had mentioned it wasn't as good as it used to be. Have you heard anything recently about it or visited?

I have not heard anything to change my opinion or make me want to return to Mitsitam. Chatters?

My husband and I had a lovely anniversary dinner at Tail Up Goat last week that I wanted to share. I noted that I'm vegetarian when I made the reservation and when the waiter stopped by our table, he had a menu for me with all of the non-vegetarian dishes crossed out or with a little note about how it could be modified to be vegetarian. I often spend a lot of time looking over menus, trying to figure out what I can eat, what I can modify, what that weird ingredient is and whether it's a meat product, and I sometimes feel like I am so focused on what I CAN eat that I have a hard time deciding what I WANT to eat. This was such a simple way to handle it and much easier for me than the often wrong or confusing (v) or (vg) that some places print on the menu. All of the food was delicious (especially the carrot ravioli), the service was excellent, and we were pleasantly surprised to get a small dessert on the house for our anniversary. We will definitely go back.

Take a bow, Tail Up Goat (or TUG, as some fans call it). 

Plume provides little ottomans (ottomen??) for purses which is such a nice detail. I don't want to take up table space or keep my bag in my lap and it's wonderful that they thought of such a useful element.

My briefcase got to experience the pleasure of a padded stool at the restaurant in the Jefferson hotel, too.

Hi Tom, we are so excited to have a reservation at Del Mar at the Wharf this weekend (fingers crossed for nice weather). Looking at the menu, it says the paellas serve 2-4. We are only two and I'm afraid this will be too much food. I hate to waste food, I hate to overeat, and from my experience leftover seafood taken home just doesn't heat up well. What do you recommend? We don't want to miss one of Del Mar's specialties. Thanks so much.

Take it from someone who has re-heated leftover paella from the Spanish restaurant: You will be glad you brought the remains home with you. If you're worried about the seafood, consider gently rewarming it separately. Keep in mind, there's typically a non-seafood paella on the menu, too. The one with mushrooms and morcilla sausage is as luscious as any other paella. 

I remember when there was plenty of room between tables, so that you could get in and out of your seat without fear of hitting someone else. And it made conversations more private, keeping the noise level down.

You are preaching to the choir with your complaint there!

You made this comment last week: 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 ... — May 16, 2018 11:26 EDT I would refer you to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This law requires restaurants to make reasonable accommodations for person with disabilities and doing what you suggest would be against the law. Here is a point of reference for you: https://www.ada.gov/reachingout/servingcustomers.html

Thank you and duly noted. (The poster is referencing my response to a chatter seeking to sample the standing-room-only Spoken English in the Line hotel in Adams Morgan.)

Hi Tom, have you seen the new service industry show on Starz called SweetBitter? Any thoughts? Do you have a favorite food show or movie? Tampopo?

I have yet to see the series reviewed by my esteemed colleague Hank Stuever.  Frankly, I don't watch a lot of food shows. They're too much of a bus man's holiday. But I recently caught Nancy Silverton on "Chef's Table" on Netflix and was intrigued enough to watch more episodes. 

Thank you for your weekly expertise and inspiration, Tom! I have a long-shot question that I'm hoping you (or a chatter) can answer: my husband and I are spending a long weekend in a cabin near Luray, VA, for his birthday. I'd like to surprise him with a nice birthday dinner one night. The Inn at Little Washington is, unfortunately, out of our price range -- I'd be willing to spend $250 total (including drinks) and to drive ~30 minutes. Do you have any recommendations for fine dining experiences in that beautiful part of the state?

Luray (or nearby), anyone? 

My wife and I have been regulars at Jaleo since it opened 25 years go. From the beginning wait staff suggested ordering dishes a few at a time, keeping a menu, and then ordering more when we were ready. We've eaten at both Del Mar and Chloe recently, and we followed the same practice without any resistance from wait staff. José knows how to serve tapas, and it seems the rest of DC is slowly catching up. This is how to pace your own meal.

That's my preferred method o ordering a meal in a small plates purveyor, too: a few at a time.

I probably shouldn't advertise where to enjoy the best softshell sandwich in town - but for those of us who love those crabs, no place serves them better than Two Amys. It is served as a panini, on the restaurant's excellent house-made bread (sliced thinly and measuring about the size of the large crab), with escarole, a house-made onion ring, and house-made mayo. I skip the mayo and ask for the great salsa verde usually served with the deviled eggs, but either way they are great!

(Soft shell crab!) Something tells me there's about to be a line forming outside Two Amy's in a few minutes.

Hi Tom, I have eaten at OMG three times now. The first was months before you named it into your new Top Ten. It was so mediocre that we didn’t go back until you did put it on your Spring 2018 list. On this second visit for lunch, it was so much better... great and attentive service, great raw oysters, soup, french fries etc. So of course we decided to go back for lunch and take some friends last week. What a mistake. The service was almost non-existent. I had to get up three times during our meal to find our server: to refill our water glasses, to get the salad dressing on the side, and to find out where the raw oysters... the excuse being the shucker was late. And talk about the raw oysters...they were unremarkable and on the verge of being old. How did we know? Anyone who reallly loves raw oysters just knows when they are good and fresh. As for the entrees, the french fries and fried fish were soggy and undercooked. It will be a long tie before we go back, with or without friends. We were that disappointed. I just thought you might like to know!

Thanks for the feedback -- sad as I am to read about your recent experience.

If you feel like driving to Staunton, Zynodoa is great.

Thanks for the suggestion.

Hi Tom, thanks for the chats. I now have a little one, so no longer get to go out for a fancy Birthday dinner. My husband and I are now going to do fancy Birthday lunches while our son is at daycare and then spend my birthday evening with him. Where would you go for a Birthday lunch? We are not picky and price really isn't an issue. We live in Capitol Hill, but are will to venture around the city.

What a great idea! Close to (your) home, there's the breezy Joselito  for Spanish fare. Elsewhere around town, try Rasika West End for modern Indian, Fiola Mare for Italian seafood on the Georgetown waterfront or Et Voila! in the Palisades for Belgian. 

Hi Tom - have you tried the new restaurant(s) that replaced the beloved 8407 Kitchen Bar in Silver Spring? While I haven't tried the upstairs Buena Vida, my group and I enjoyed the downstairs TTT - casual atmosphere, and a long list of various tacos which were mostly delicious (we sampled about 8 or so, and the Shrimp Taco and the Grilled Mahi really shined). TTT is a nice addition to the downtown Silver Spring dining scene - but curious to see what your experience has been.

I've only eaten (once) at the second-story Buena Vida, which lets diners compose a meal of small plates (tacos, seviche, enchiladas, etc.) for $35. It's a good deal, accompanied by attentive service and very good margaritas. 

Hi Tom, Is there a restaurant reviewer in Boston whom you trust? Thanks!

Yes, it's Devra First at the Boston Globe. You can follow the critic on Twitter at @devrafirst.

Agree on three well-paced courses. Perhaps even more: a main course designed as a whole, with vegetables/sides chosen to complement the specific dish. I gradp that restaurants can avoid waste and charge extra by demanding that you order vegetables separately, but then out goes any notion of a complete dish, balanced for flavor, color and texture by the chef.

Ah, the well-balanced, all-inclusive main course! I remember it well.  The profusion of small plates, and side dishes meant for sharing, have pushed fully-composed entrees out to pasture of late.

The restaurant welcome is gracious, the service is mixed (the kitchen still getting on its feet?), but it is the noise that will keep me away from the good food unless they have space available outside. It is impossible to have a conversation. Do you know if they have any plans to correct this? Even the waiters can't hear the customers.

Every time I've eaten at the new Italian restaurant in the Palisades, I've visited on the early side. But let's hope the owners see your post today -- and act on the problem.

I live in Culpeper, about 50 minutes from Luray. There are some fine restaurants in town, most of which I would recommend. Fotis, Flavor on Main (particularly cool cocktails) are just a couple of my favorites. I would image there are a couple of good ones in Sperryville as well. Really not far from Luray at all.

The original poster wanted something within 30 minutes of Luray, but I'll go ahead and post your suggestions anyway.

I'll be going for the first time this weekend. Is the wine pairing paramount to getting the full experience? Thanks!

I certainly enhances *my* time there, but I've heard from a number of non-drinkers who have been greatly satisfied by the non-alcoholic choices at the fabled Inn.

I’m curious about how often you visit restaurants on your own versus bringing a companion. I imagine it would be beneficial to have a second opinion and additional dishes to taste when someone is with you. Also, do you tend to bring the same few people as your plus ones because you value their feedback or do you change it up to get varied opinions? I’m sure it’s not hard to get volunteers to accompany you and that any one of us on this live chat would love to do that.

I have about 50 regulars I count on when I'm out and about, and if the number seems high, keep in mind I'm dining out an average of 10-12 meals a week. While I prefer to dine as a couple or a quartet -- any more and it's hard to focus on the meal -- I enjoy my occasional solo ventures, partly because the hardest part of the job is the constantly socializing. My regular dining companions include friends, family, colleagues, neighbors and others in my orbit. They know the drill, they tend to be stealth, they're good at sharing, etc.

My granddaughter and I are coming to National on Sunday to see a matinee of "Waitress." We're looking for a good place to eat whose menu might extend beyond traditional breakfast/brunch items. What do you suggest.

That's easy: Central Michel Richard, which features (among other things) goat cheese Caesar salad, tuna poke and shrimp and grits on its brunch menu.

Tom, I will be in New York next month and wanted to know if you have eaten at Le Bernardin recently. Is it worth the hype? Thanks!

Oui! It's the best seafood restaurant in Manhattan.

Okay Tom, the time has come that I have simultaneously hoped for and agonized about. I'm leaving DC, after having lived in the area my whole life. Granted, it's temporary, but still - the move is to Little Rock, which I know not much about. Anyway. I want a last meal. I want a good, sumptuous, indulgent last meal. In another life I might be able to afford Pineapple and Pearls or Minibar, but in this life, I top out at $100, maybe $125pp (plus tip). Where should I go? I know the regulars - Rasika, Fiola (Fiola Mare, Sfoligna), Rose's Luxury, Tail Up Goat (right down the street from me - been there a few times!). Outside might be nice, but I'm not married to that. I guess I'm not married to anything (location, ethnicity, price other than what I've described). But imagine it was your last night in a city you dearly love - how do you go out with a bang?

Oh, wow. The pressure. Maybe because it's my go-to place on the rare night I'm not reviewing, but the all-American Buck's Fishing & Camping could be a fun farewell dinner. So could Little Serow, if you don't mind lining up for a spot, or the friendly bar at

Johnny's Half Shell in Adams Morgan. 

 

This seems like an appropriate time to sign off and thank you for another lively chat. Let's do it again next Wednesday, same time.

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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