The Washington Post

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

May 24, 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.

Tom - I am probably close to the demographic theoretically most excited by calorie counts on menus (mid-30s, female, reasonably health conscious), but I HATE THEM. I find myself either ordering what I wanted and feeling miserably guilty about the calories, or not ordering what I wanted and grumpy about the experience. Two female friends and I went out to a chain restaurant on Saturday night (reliving our high school glory days), and we spent a good fifteen minutes discussing calories. Which is absolutely NOT the thing I want to do when dining with friends. I wish there was an choice whether to get a menu with or without, but I understand printing runs and the costs associated with having two versions (plus I don't even know if they legally can provide a menu without calorie counts). But it is a huge bummer and I am extraordinarily unhappy about it, so this seemed like the logical place to vent!

Did you by chance eat at the Cheesecake Factory? I ask, because I dropped by the chain recently and couldn't help but notice the calorie counts, most of which are totally shocking (I'm talking a day's calories in say, a single sandwich).

 

While I can relate to your distress about the numbers,  think about it: you're not eating out every day like this (right?) and life is more fun when you stick to the rule of  "everything in moderation" -- including moderation. If you are otherwise healthy and prone to eating from the bottom of the food pyramid, you should be free to order as you wish in a restaurant. 

 

GOOD NEWS for the dad from last week's chat who wanted to eat lobster Thermidor with his young son. Meredith Goldberg, the director of marketing and communications for the Jefferson hotel, said the chef of the Plume would be happy to make the classic for the two. She can be reached at 202-448-3250 to assist with arrangements. (Thank you, Meredith.)

 

This coming Sunday's review in the Magazine looks at a New York import, The Smith, in Penn Quarter.  The American brasserie is a good place to know about when you're faced with making reservations for mixed appetites, since the menu runs from zucchini flatbread and mini crab cakes to steak and Korean bibimbap.

 

I'll be on a major deadline May 31, so I won't be hosting a chat next Wednesday. Please send me your pressing dining questions within the next hour or so.

 

Question for the audience from me: Has anyone else notice how cramped some dining rooms have become?  Might anyone have an anecdote about tight quarters, overheard conversations or food or drink being knocked overboard? Share away.

 

Let's get started.

Hi Tom, My family is going on an Alaskan cruise this summer and we are so excited. At the end of the trip, we will be in Anchorage for my mom's 80th birthday. Can you or any of your readers suggest any restaurants for us to have a celebratory dinner for her? Ideally it would accept reservations for a party of seven, be kid friendly (we have a 7 and 8 year old that are well behaved), and not be overly fancy since we will be traveling with nice but casual clothing. We would prefer someplace uniquely Alaskan or with a view if that's possible. We are open to pretty much any cuisine, although unfortunately my mother does not eat sushi. Thank you in advance!

Alaska! Sounds fun. I have yet to visit. Chatters? Any dining advice in Anchorage?

Looking for a fun dinner spot in DC for a few best friends on a Friday night. We've enjoyed the vibe at Le Diplomate and Iron Gate, so if you have something to recommend, please shoot out a few suggestions. Thanks!

I'm loving Compass Rose off 14th St. NW right now: such good service, such a fun vibe and new dishes including spicy Malaysian prawns and Jamaican lamb stew, both excellent. I've also been impressed with the Morrocan/Spanish/Portuguese menu at the breezy new Arroz in the Marriott Marquis. The rice dishes are particularly delicious.

Hi Tom - I have a friend coming in from out of town for a conference at the Gaylord National Convention Center. We are grabbing dinner tomorrow night (Thursday). Where would you recommend we go? I saw your thumbs up review for Succotash but it was some time ago. We are driving from VA and can't tell if it's easy to get to the casino area or if there are good options close to the convention center. Thank you!

For the best meal in that area, you need to go to the MGM casino and eat at either Fish by Jose Andres or the Voltaggio Brothers Steak House. Both are infinitely better than anything within the Gaylord. 

So don't do it. It is within your power to ignore the calorie listings, and it is certainly within your power to refrain from discussing it.

Also, some chain restaurants offer "lean" selections. Cheesecake Factory devotes a whole menu to relatively healthful dishes, for instance. Alternately, a diner can balance something high-calorie with something that's better for her.  ( It's not that hard! In January,  I managed to lose seven pounds on Weight Watchers while still eating out.)

This is more of an issue at casual places. I'm pretty picky about what condiments and other items are added to my food. I've had several times now where I've had to send food back because they added things that weren't listed on the menu. For example, I ordered a sandwich and nowhere did it say it came with mustard and mayo (both of which I can't stand), and sure enough, they put mustard and mayo on it. Another time, the menu listed add-ons of onions, peppers, mushrooms, etc, worded in a way that clearly implied they were available but not part of the standard order. I didn't order any of them, and of course they put all of them on. Now I feel that every time I order something, I have to ask what it comes with and/or specifically say what I don't want on it. Why can't they be clearer about this?

For some diners, it would be great to have every ingredient spelled out, but can you imagine how long most menus would be?  

 

Given that you describe yourself as "pretty picky" about what you like on or with your food, I think the burden is on you to ask exactly how a given dish is made.

 

As we've discussed in past food chats, however, certain ingredients -- pork, nuts, cilantro-- should always be flagged in menu descriptions. Maybe we should add mustard and mayo to the list!

Hey Tom--- Love your chats. They really give me something to look forward to on Wednesdays. I'm writing because in recent chats, you've advocated that restaurant customers speak up when there's a problem. I agree with you completely, however I just wanted to vocalize the desire for kinder complaints. I don't work in the food industry, but I do work a public facing job. In the last two weeks, I've been subject to some pretty terrible rants and personal attacks regarding how I do my job. Justified or not, no customer should yell at, threaten, or belittle a server, host, or manager. We are all still people, after all. So please, complain if your food is cold, or drinks are slow coming out, or if anything else goes wrong during your visit to a dining establishment. But please remember, no matter how angry you are, be kind when complaining.

Right on.  With regard to complaints, honey works better than vinegar. Thanks for the reminder to be civil. 

Tom, I thought you didn't care for that aptly-named ("factory") establishment. What caused you to stop by?

I think it's important to check into all manner of food establishments now and then. I mean, the Cheesecake Factory is the 11th biggest full-service chain in the U.S., according to Nation's Restaurant News.

Any recommendation on where to go where we would fit in and not be mistaken for waitstaff?

What exactly are you planning on wearing? I ask because, more and more, the staff at high-end restaurants are sporting designer duds rather than prescribed uniforms. That said, tuxedos and ball gowns would fit right in at establishments including Marcel's in the West End, the aforementioned Plume in the Jefferson hotel and Fiola, the opulent Italian restaurant in Penn Quarter. 

Went to a restaurant a few weeks ago. The restaurant has been around for at least 5 years or so. We had a reservation; it was a week night. It took the 3 of us 2.5 hours to get through a meal; not because we're slow eaters or big talkers but because the service was so slow. Our server seemed to have too many tables/customers. He appeared to be doing the best he could. When we left, I saw the owner/chef sitting at the bar. I approached him and mentioned that while our server was good, it appeared that he had too many tables so it took way too long for us get through our meal. He proceeded to complain to me that it was because too many people come in without reservations so he can't staff the restaurant properly. I informed him that we did have reservations. He didn't reply. We won't be back. Too bad, the food was pretty good.

Boy, what a silly thing to say to a customer! Instead of thanking you for your feedback and saying he's sorry for the inconvenience, the owner rants about walk-in patrons, as if that's a bad thing. (You're kind not to name the restaurant, but of course we're curious!)

Disagree. Mustard and mayo are standard sandwich spreads. It's on the diner who dislikes them to ask whether they're present and specify that they not be. We seem to have a lot of Speshul Snowflakes in the chat today.

;)

I'm the chatter who was laying odds Plume would rise to the occasion and make lobster thermidor. I love that place, not just for the food, but because they treat their customers very, very well.

And the dining room has pools and pools of space between tables.

Just want to weigh in on behalf of including information about calories on menus. I know that lots of people don't like it and that there has been some resistance from the hospitality industry to the practice. Just want to relate my experience in using that information to help with weight loss. I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about nutrition information, but once that information was readily available (while eating out and on packaging at the grocery store), I made significant strides in losing extra weight that I'd carried around my whole life. I peeled off 60 pounds in about 10 months by watching what I ate (particularly in terms of portion size) and doing regular walking. It's still gone more than five years later. I was shocked to find that the old standard advice (reduce calories plus exercise) far outstripped the effects of all the crazy diets and unsuccessful efforts I'd made. Nutrition information at my fingertips made the difference for me. (And I definitely splurge when I eat out at a special restaurant -- its part of the reward for establishing a healthy relationship with food!)

Sixty pounds in 10 months -- and you've kept the weight off? Awesome!  And congrats. Thanks for chiming in.

Submitting early with hopes of getting in soon enough to receive a response. We are leaving this weekend and are looking for a nice restaurant in the Seville area for a celebratory (2nd anniversary) dinner. One prefers not to eat red meats or seafood (but will if that is the best option), the other is a fairly adventurous diner. We prefer a moderate cost, as opposed to super deluxe, restaurant. Do you or any chatters have recommendations? Thank you, Tom; we have found your recommendations to be most helpful in the past!

I reached out to Javier Candon, the owner of SER in Arlington and Joselito on the Hill, for some ideas earlier today. The Spanish restaurateur knows the area well. 

 

Here are a few suggestions: Puratasca, a small gastrobar owned by one of Candon's childhood friends, for market cuisine ...Travedo for "reinvented" tapas, or small plates ..the Michelin-starred Abantal for something slightly more formal ... Contenedor for more modern Andalusian/international cooking.

Any recommendations for a birthday celebration in Philadelphia? We will be there in early June. Mid-range pricing - no dietary restrictions. Would love a fun place to celebrate - but not too fun - we are all over 50!

Check out the capsule reviews in my Valentine to Philadelphia from 2015. Two places I can't wait to return to, and think you might enjoy, are Abe Fisher and Vernick Food & Drink. The chef of the latter just win the honor of Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic at the James Beard Awards in Chicago.

Not sure if it's still good, but back in the day the Marx Brothers Cafe was awesome. Great food and outstanding host (Van Hale). Mean Ceasar Salad. Great wine list. Not to be missed.

 Thanks for the suggestion.

 

 Another poster offers this:  "Can't go wrong with the Glacier Brewhouse on 5th Ave downtown. Get whatever fresh salmon or halibut is on the menu. You'll all be happy."

 

 Someone else just chimed in with the following:  "Simon and Seafort's overlooking Bootlegger's Cove with a view of Mt. McKinley on a clear day. (Sister to Palisade-Seattle) Marx Bros Cafe is a few blocks away overlooking the port. Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse for fun casual and live music and huge beer selection! ANY of the brew pubs! FYI, The Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau is one of the most awarded breweries in the country."

 

Also from a fellow chatter: "Crow's Nest atop the Captain Cook Hotel has a sweeping panorama all things Anchorage. Mountains, water, lights, airplanes, more mountains. DC's own RJ Cooper actually got his start there in the early-mid 90's! Anchorage's only 4-star restaurant years ago but never had a dress code in the old days due to oil workers and miners with no fashion sense."

Hi Tom! So excited to finally be able to go to Tail Up Goat on Friday night for a rare night sans kids celebrating a very special event. I feel like I've read your review so many times that I have it memorized. As the menu changes, anything we must try? Any category of the menu we should hone in on? Half tempted to leave it in the server's capable hands as we eat everything! Thanks for your advice!

Lucky you. Tail Up Goat is a special night out. I haven't dined there recently, but in my experience, the path to success includes a dish from the bread course, at least one pasta to share and a wine selected by co-owner Bill Jensen.

Hi Tom - After some late-afternoon good news, my friend and I popped into Tail Up Goat for a last-minute celebratory dinner. We were able to snag seats at the bar, and I can't think of a better experience at a DC restaurant. First, they were super gracious about me taking up two seats at the bar by myself for 30 minutes while my friend struggled to find parking, and the bar area was a hot commodity--they had to turn away 3 or 4 parties just while I was waiting. We had the rabbit sausage (amazing), straciatella (more amazing), and for dinner she got the carrot ravioli and I got the whole stuffed dorade. While she liked her ravioli, she was jealous of my dish, which the servers also raved about. Without going on too much, the stuffing was creamy and delicious, the sauce was just spicy enough, and it was nice that it came already deboned. If that wasn't enough, just as I was noticing that it had been a while in between our appetizers and main course, the bartender poured us some "apology bubbles" for the wait. It was a little pricey, but totally worth it. Definitely my new favorite spot in the city, and I can't wait for another special occasion to go back!

Perfect timing for the poster above: a fresh review from a more-than-satisfied customer. Thanks for the feedback and especially the rich detail. 

Tom, Just to weigh in on the legality, there are ACA requirements that chain restaurants have to abide by, even those that are franchises. I have a friend in the industry who owns one franchise location and was sad to learn that if he wanted to add some custom items to the menu he would bear the full cost of getting the nutritional info tested for those items so it could be displayed.

You bet. I should have mentioned that fact, above.

What are your thoughts about Pete Wells' article in the New York Times about why he is not reviewing Noma Mexico, which you reviewed for the luxury issue of the magazine? Did you also struggle with "the idea of a meal devoted to local traditions and ingredients that is being prepared and consumed mostly by people from somewhere else"?

Regarding Pete's piece in today's NYT, I addressed at least one of his points in my review of Noma Mexico, which was not just a critique of the costly pop-up by Rene Redzepi, one of the world's best chef's, but also a story about everything that goes into such a massive undertaking. 

 

Just because a restaurant is hard to experience doesn't mean people don't want to read about it. I mean, I still haven't been to "Hamilton,"  tickets for which I know people have shelled out thousands of dollars for, but I still want to read about it.  Can't restaurants be aspirational, too? 

 

Redzepi employed a lot of locals to help him on the project and also created a scholarship fund to for Mexican culinary students. 'My conscience is clean," he told me.

 

Just to clarify, I wrote about Noma Mexico for the Food section April 26. The subject of my piece in the luxury issue was on the (regrettable) Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Don't forget, you don't HAVE to eat the whole serving! You can leave some on theplate or take it home for later and get two meals for thaat calorie count.

Sound advice. Restaurant portions tilt big.

OP for question about Seville and now, I am so very excited! Thank you, Tom, for going out of your way to get us a response that I am sure will provide an excellent dinner ... or three! I'll write again after the trip and let you know how everything went!

You are welcome and I look forward to your report. Enjoy!

Just wondering if you've visited the new Laduree in Georgetown yet. I had a terrible experience for a very expensive lunch last week. I couldn't find a manager (and after 2 hours needed to get back to work and couldn't wait) so I emailed the restaurant as soon as I got back to the office. Still no response. Also, try calling. The phone has been off the hook since they opened!

I went the weekend Laduree opened and stood in line for a cafe table with a bunch of other people. Not once did anyone greet us, make eye contact -- or tell us that the empty tables we were aiming for were all reserved for late arrivals. I complained twice, one to a server and once to a manager, after which I left and had a terrific and leisurely lunch at Chez Billy Sud nearby.

I just got back from my honeymoon with a woman who makes each day a joy beyond words. In addition to Abantal (worth going for the drink pairings alone), we enjoyed El Traga and Café-Bar las Teresas for tapas.

Sweet!

My fiance and I are heading to Asheville, NC for Memorial Day weekend. She is vegetarian. Any must-hits down there for her? Any must-hits down there for me, a meatarian?

In addition to some of the restaurants I wrote about several years ago, in a Postcard from Asheville, I suggest you investigate Chai Pani downtown for Indian street food.

Orso in Anchorage - great wine and seafood http://orsoalaska.com/menu/

Just before we sign off. Thanks.

Hi Tom! First of all, LOVE your chat and your reviews. I live in PA, but frequently travel to DC for work, and enjoy checking out the DC restaurant scene while I'm there. Here's my question: I'm taking my company's four interns to DC in June where they will shadow me for a day on the Hill and get to do a few tours, etc. I always take the interns to Old Ebbitt for a classic DC dinner spot, and then a different restaurant the second night (last year: Ted's Bulletin) but I was wondering if you have any additional suggestions for another first night venue. I'd like to give them the experience of a classic DC "power" restaurant, without breaking the bank (and then take them on an evening monument walk). Thanks so much in advance for your suggestion(s)! And thanks for what you do.

As a follow-up to Old Ebbitt Grill, which I like best for its oyster program, can I suggest you show off one of DC's non-American restaurants? The city is a world capital, after all. I think a meal of Korean appetizers and ramen at the colorful  Haikan might be fun, for instance.  Or small plates at Jaleo, my favorite tapas restaurant -- in the country. "Power" restaurants tend to be on the pricey side, but you can get a taste of them by ordering say, the pre-theater or early-bird menus at establishments including the Oval Room near the White House.  Three courses for $39 before 6:30 weeknights strikes me as a great deal.

 

Thanks for the kind words and have fun. 

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Please join me again when I'm back to take your questions on June 7.

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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