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

May 27, 2015

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 - You've often commented that Shirlington lacks good dining options and with a bunch of recent closures, the actual options are dwindling. (I'm hopeful about Hula Girl, but there are more vacancies to fill.) In your opinion, why isn't Shirlington a better dining destination? When Jose Andres or Mike Isabella looks to open a new place, is Shirlington even in the mix? If not, why not? Lack of Metro? Perceptions about who's dining out in the neighborhood? I live very close and am a Signature season ticket holder and would love to eat there more often, but apart from Carlyle, the quality seems variable. Any insight you can provide would be great. Thanks.

    I don't understand Shirlington's paucity of good places to eat. Because the area is home to plenty of  young people with good jobs and money to spare for dining out. 

 

    "Shirlington is not a place I put much thinking," Jose Andres told me on his way to work this morning. He prefers more "urban" locations for his ventures. At the same time, he thinks Shirlington is "full of opportunities" for young chefs interested in opening their own places.

 

    Has Mike Isabella ever considered Shirlington?  The chef says he hasn't.  As far as Northern Virginia is concerned, "I'm more familiar with Arlington and the development there than with in Shirlington."  Isabella says he likes to position his restaurants so they don't compete against one another, which explains why Kapnos Taverna is in Arlington rather than near the original Kapnos in Washington.

 

 Good morning, gang. Here's hoping you all had a relaxing long weekend. Tell me what's on your mind this morning.

We are locals and formerly regulars at the Ashby; had dinner last night which could only be described as shambolic (both service and food) -- at $36 for a plate of roasted chicken and $46 for tough steak, it is now ridiculously overpriced. The place hasn't been the same since Neal Wavra was pushed out over a year ago, and with David Dunlap leaving, your Spring 2015 Guide needs a much stronger caveat than simply mentioning David's departure -- absurd to have the Ashby even in the same breath (and rating) as a gem like Tom Power's Corduroy, and damaging to your credibility for folks who go there unprepared. On a happier note, Frank Ruta is really shining at the Capella -- wonderful $35 lunch outdoors by the canal last week.

Had I known Dunlap was leaving, I obviously wouldn't have re-reviewed the Ashby Inn at this time. But we alerted readers to the change twice: online (atop the update) and in the A-1 section of the May 17 paper.  With that knowledge, I think Post readers are smart enough to decide for themselves whether or not to try a place.

I went out to dinner recently at a new restaurant in my neighborhood and had a very nice meal with good service. Normally, this would have resulted in a perfectly pleasant customer review from me. Unfortunately, my credit card information was stolen at the restaurant. In addition to alerting my credit card company of the fraud, I tried contacting the restaurant via email (no response) and phone (“we’ll have someone call you back” and never heard back). I don’t believe it is the restaurants fault that my card was stolen in the first place but I was surprised that they wouldn’t even respond when they were informed of the problem. Do you think this is something that would be fair to include in a customer review of a restaurant?

Service isn't just seating diners, taking orders and delivering food. It's also following up on any problems that might arise during a meal.

 

That said, in this case, I'd probably give the restaurant a break. The establishment is new, as you point out, and you enjoyed both the food and the attention you received while you were in the place. A busy new restaurant may not be checking its email 24/7 -- though someone on staff should be in charge of monitoring communication -- and phone messages are best left with a manager, who has the authority to investigate matters such as yours.

I've been to Seasonal in NYC on your recommendation, but sadly it's now closed for renovation! Where should I go in that area for dinner? I have a reservation at Azalea.

Esca on 43rd St! There are few places like it for seafood and Italian.  It's my go-to spot before a Broadway show.  Razor clam ceviche and bucatini with octopus sauce don't put me to sleep by Act 2. 

Tom, I hope you had a nice Memorial Day. We celebrated with homemade strawberry shortcake. Incredible! I am heading to Chicago early next month and was hoping you could recommend a spot for dinner. My usual "go to" is The Publican, however, they are closed. I was thinking Little Goat Diner. I realize it's the polar opposite of The Publican! Tom, thanks!!

Strawberry shortcake sounds fabulous. I visited a mediocre Thai restaurant for dinner, went home and opened a bottle of rose -- also a good dessert, no?

 

I'm writing about Chicago in June for my Best Food Cities series, which focused previously on Charleston and San Francisco.  Do yourself a favor a book a table at the very good Tete Charcuterie, home preserved meats from around the globe, in the West Loop.

Just curious how you know the information was stolen at that restaurant.

Thanks for raising the question.

Sorry I didn't get to read this column until after you signed off. Re: noise dampening assistance--The Bartlett Pear Inn in Easton, MD found a perfect solution for their very high ceilinged federal style dining room. They took large rectangles of plywood, maybe 8' x 3', covered them in one inch foam, and then canvas material in the same color as the ceiling, and had them attached to the ceiling. It made the ceiling quite interesting architecturally--we actually asked about it--and were surprised to find that it was their noise abatement program. Surely some of these DC restaurants could try something like this. Perhaps you could suggest this to some of the noisier ones. Eg. we will never go back to Zatinya due to the excessive noise.

Hooray for the Bartlett Pear Inn! (That's a stage whisper, by the way, not a shout.)

 

There are all kinds of ways restaurants can lesson noise in dining rooms: carpets, drapes, linens, padded columns -- all of which cost money or require upkeep, I should point out.

Shouldn't a busy new restaurant be doing that, though? First impressions are very important. And there's that saying about how many more people dissatisfied customers tell than satisfied ones do.

True. And I hinted at that in my response. But the opening days for a restaurant are pretty frantic ones. I'm willing to cut them a little slack. (A *little.*)

Seriously, which fast food place is best? Or at least... the one you hate only a little?

If you're talking about mass-market fast food, I like the French fries at McDonald's, the burger at Wendy's and the spicy fried chicken and red beans and rice at Popeye's. On a smaller scale, I find myself enjoying a quick meal now and then at Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen (with locations in Dupont Circle and Georgetown) and the locally-made Beefsteak by Jose Andres near George Washington University and (by August) Dupont Circle.

 

FYI:  Andres told me he's planning to serve beefsteak tomato sandwiches for about $5 at the original Beefsteak sometime in June or July. The line forms with me. 

Hi Tom. I grew up with the idea that one doesn't tip the owner of a restaurant. In a local ethnic restaurant, I'm not sure but I suspect strongly that the people who wait on the tables may be the owners of the restaurant, or at least involved in managing. We tip, we always tip, but I wonder if they should be collecting tips. On a recent visit, they had no extra staff to handle a large crowd on a Friday evening, and I thought this was a poor way to run things--whether someone didn't show up, or they didn't want the cost of hiring extra help I don't know.

Owners don't get tipped and if they, do the *good* ones give their employees the money.  Regardless of who waits on you, you want to leave a gratuity.

Tom, I'm a loyal reader of your reviews and articles, and while I don't always get to monitor your chats real time, I always read the transcripts. I also enjoy Todd Kliman's work as well, including his chats. On numerous occasions, I've seen a question posed to Todd, and then a day later, the same question (word for word) is posed to you. I assume it's the work of one individual. This practice seems to be selfish, and a waste of your chat time. Would you consider mentioning this in your chat? Thanks as always. Happy to provide my contact information if you need more info.

I don't have a problem with anyone double dipping, so to speak.  The critics from the Washingtonian and the Washington Post might dish up completely different opinions, after all. 

What about the cost-benefit ratio though? If word spreads that you can hear yourself think at such a restaurant, surely the increase in custom would outweigh the cost.

Fair point. But I don't think a lot of restaurant owners think that way. They *want* a sense of energy and liveliness. Quiet restaurants don't enjoy the same cachet.

I had my credit card information stolen twice in a brief period (two different cards) and both credit card companies said it could have happened anytime. It can happen at restaurants, gas stations, online, etc. They said it could have been recently or months ago. The criminals don't always try to use the cards immediately. So, how can someone say for sure the information was stolen at the restaurant?

Thanks for raising this valid point.

Hi Tom -- Could you recommend a casual, family-friendly restaurant in Georgetown where we could have lunch after a morning of bike riding? Thanks!

Try Kafe Leopold in Cady's Alley off M St. for schnitzel, bratwurst and not-too-sweet European-style desserts or Pizzeria Paradiso for salads and savory pies.

Hi Tom, I am looking for suggestions for my 23rd birthday. I want a fun, interactive dining experience with awesome drinks and an upbeat vibe. There will be a group of 7 of us, some very adventurous and others not at all. My first thought was Tico but since I’ve already been there I was wondering if you had suggestions on similar places (price range, atmosphere, etc.). I would be happy with anything in Arlington or DC that is metro accessible. Thank you!

Hot, hot, hot: Maketto on H St. NE for Asian fare with flair and awesome energy. China Chilcano and it's hybrid Chinese/Peruvian/Japanese menu is worth exploring as well.

Tom, thanks for your discussions, always a treat. My question: do you ever venture into Atlantic City for a meal? There seem to be several casino restaurants fronted by celebrity chefs (Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay), but the nearby towns of Margate and Ventnor seem to have better (and less expensive) menus. Any thoughts?

You know what? I've never set foot in Atlantic City, so I'm going to throw your query out to the chatters.

Hi Tom, We are planning to have a post-wedding celebration of 8-10 people between 3:30-5:30 on a Friday in June in DC. We are looking for an elegant fine-dining restaurant with white table-cloth serving French, Italian or American food and drinks. But most of the restaurants are closed during that time. Do you have any suggestions? Thank you.

I bet there's a restaurant out there willing to open and cater your wedding party -- for the right price. I'd start with Marcel's for French, Fiola for Italian and Grill Room or Plume for modern American. 

Hello, I read here in the chat at some point about Istanbul Eats tours (now Culinary Backstreets). I took a tour in early May on both the European and Asian side and it was an excellent introduction to the wonderful flavors of Istanbul. I love that this chat improves my travels! I also enjoyed food in Iran and even more so in the small Greek islands of Milos, Sifnos, and Kythnos.

 For anyone going to Istanbul, here's the piece I wrote about one of the best tours I've ever taken, anywhere.

Are there any restaurants that don't serve brunch on Saturday? My husband and I don't eat lunch out through the week, but we frequently eat out on Saturday only to find every restaurant serves brunch only. They now serve brunch on Monday holidays. Where can we go that will offer us the fare they offer for lunch the rest of the week? We can't be the only non brunch fans out there. Thanks!

  A ThinkFoodGroup restaurant --- Oyamel, Jaleo, Zaytinya -- may be your best bet. While they offer brunch-type dishes, they also serve many of their regular lunchMexican/Spanish/Middle Eastern specialties, respectively.

 

Looking for a fun place to take a group of 6 for dinner in Arlington. Possibly something small plates so we can share. Not too formal. Food budget around $50 per person.

Try Me Jana, the very good Lebanese restaurant I revisited for the spring dining guide.  The food -- stuffed grape leaves, hummus, meat kabobs -- is easy to share and easy to like.

I wish I had the dinner at Kapnos Taverna that you had. My experience was not as delicious. My grape leaves were over sweet and under "tang". My chicken was dry and overcooked. We can agree that the dips and flatbread rock, though. Maybe it's worth giving it another shot just for that bread and some of the dips.

I went four times. Maybe you hit the place on an off night?

A follow up to the question above: I know the card was stolen there as I hadn't used it before that dinner and it was the only time I'd used it. The card never left my possession other than at the restaurant and within a week had been maxed out in various locations in Fairfax, thus generally ruling out the possibility of it being the result of a hack at my (not local to DC) credit union.

Thanks for clarifying.

Hi Tom. I'm writing to mention a less-than-pleasant experience I had at Vermillion over the weekend. My parents were visiting from the Midwest, and I wanted to treat them to a few of the better local eateries while they were in town. We went to Vermillion for lunch on Saturday. Although our appetizer arrived in a reasonable time, our waiter basically disappeared afterward. We flagged him down about 20 minutes after finishing the appetizer and inquired about our entrees, noting that several tables seated after us had received their main courses. He responded, with some attitude, that the single appetizer we received 30 minutes earlier was the cause for the delay. Given the amount of time that had passed, that response struck us as disingenuous. The restaurant did not appear particularly busy, nor did our waiter. I normally would not hold a single instance of slow service against a restaurant, but the waiter's unsatisfactory response and snippy attitude are enough to keep me from returning to Vermillion.

 I'm sad to hear that, and sadder to say that recent meals at some Neighborhood Restaurant Group establishments, of which Vermilion is one, seem to be drifting from their original ideals.

There is also a Shophouse at Union Station, right across from Chipotle. I went there a couple weeks ago and will happily return the next time I'm passing through.

Of course. Thanks for the memory jog.

Good morning, Tom, and thanks for your guidance through the years. We're headed to NYC in two weeks to celebrate my wife's birthday. I'm hoping you can recommend a can't miss seafood or sushi spot in the Midtown East or Upper East Side areas. Or any can't miss restaurants in those areas, for that matter. And if there are none you're familiar with, if you were in NYC for one night, where would you choose to dine? Thanks Tom. And it's not said enough, but you rock!

 Flattery will get you everything (or at least a handful of restaurant recommendations).  Here's my latest dispatch from New York. In addition, you should go to Sushi Yasuda for Japanese and, provided price is no object, Le Bernardin for some of the most exquisite seafood in this country.  The restaurant is  in Midtown West.

Hi - what would you recommend for a nice place to meet a friend who is in town and working near the White House? We met at Old Ebbitt the other time she was here. Thanks!

I'd go the bar at Joe's, the patio at the Oval Room or  a table inside the always-pleasant Siroc on 15th St. NW

I am taking my father to dinner. He's 80, uses a walker, and has a hard time with steps. Short of me visiting restaurants in person, is it out of line for me to call in advance and ask about steps, or to ask about a rear entrance? Thinking of taking him to Corduroy or Vidalia.

I know Vidalia has an elevator. Corduroy has steps leading up to the door that might be tricky for your father to navigate.

Good Morning! I was reading your piece in the magazine about reaching out to chefs to make special occasions more personalized. What's the best way to do that? If I called a restaurant, for example, do you think that the chef would respond to me quickly if I am a regular Joe? Thank you.

I'd enlist the help of a manager, who can facilitate requests. Call the restaurant at a good time, though: Before 11 a.m. in the morning or after 3 p.m..

Hi Tom, Our 9th anniversary is this week and we're at a loss for where to go. Neither of us are super enthused about just going out to dinner (we're new at paying for a babysitter so wanting to make the most of the time someone is sitting home watching our TV is ideal), but we're just stumped. As noted, we don't get out that often and recently learned that I'm pregnant, so places where booze is the focus won't make one of us happy. In the past, we've enjoyed Restaurant Eve, Bourbon Steak, Jaleo, but would be happy not spending a ton if there's a place that offers some type of entertainment or fun ambiance. We plan on going out on a Thursday, if that makes a difference. Thanks Tom!

  I thoroughly enjoyed the buzz and the small plates at the subject of my Sunday review, the aforementioned Kapnos Taverna, in Arlington. Or how about an alfresco dinner at Fiola in Penn Quarter, after which you can stroll along Pennsylvania Ave.?  Bombay Club near the White House offers live piano music with its very good Indian menu.

Tom, in response to the chatter inquiring about a wedding party - we'd be delighted to work with them at Fiola. Please contact me at jessica@fioladc.com. - Jessica

Now *that's* a speedy follow-up. Here you go, Original Poster.

Tips get split among more staff than just the server of your table.

Yep.

Why on earth didn't you go to the manager immediately, if your waiter was incompetent AND snippy?

I can only tell people so many times: If you've got an issue, bring it to the attention of a supervisor, pronto.

Hello Tom, I'll be in Orlando next month for a week-long conference. Any places to check out at $20-30 range? Thanks,

Haven't been in ages. Chatters?

What would you say are upcoming neighborhoods in No. Virginia. It's a shame about Shirlington as we live nearby, but I largely agree with the assessment of it. Columbia Pike seems to have some good buzz about it.

The Mosaic District in Fairfax keeps growing and growing and ... growing. I was an early fan of Gypsy Soul and B Side and am poised to write about Brine, from oysterman Travis Croxton, soon.

Where would you suggest for a company holiday party (I know! I can't believe we are already thinking about December...) in the DC area for about 80 people? We do not want to get stuck with catering at a local hotel...

With eighty people, you're probably going to have to rent out the restaurant, or much of it.  What kind of crowd is this and what's the budget?  Off the top of my head, I'm thinking Mio (Latin American), Rasika West End (modern Indian), the new Mastro's steakhouse on 13th St., Casa Luca for Italian or 701 near the Hill.

I don't understand why restaurants are the only places where customers are required to hand their credit cards to somebody they don't know, who then promptly walks off with it. We would never tolerate this behavior in a store. The fact that we are separated from our credit cards DOES create more opportunity for a dishonest person to copy the number and the validation code without the card holder seeing that happen. Why haven't restaurants adopted the hand-held credit card readers that other places use? I've seen them used in many European restaurants.

More of them have here -- and I applaud the technology.

As a resident nearby Shirlington and a frequent visitor/eater there, I would say that I don't necessarily need a Big Name Chef outpost, just something that's interesting, consistent and not too expensive. I'd much rather have 3 of something like Hula Girl than one Jose Andres place that I can't afford or have to wait weeks to get into.

Thanks for weighing in.

Part of the issue with Shirlington, sadly, is that the rents there are extremely high. Shirlington's Property Management has squeezed out several small businesses (such as Cakelove, Bonsai Grill, Curious Grape, etc.), because the owners simply can't afford the high monthly rents. That being said, a chain like Matchbox could move in there tomorrow and do gangbusters for business. (a case-in-point, Busboys and Poets, which does quite nicely in Shirlington.)

I appreciate your taking the time to write.

Fogo de Chao is an excellent place for large parties, especially the upstairs....

Right. I try to promote local products/venues when possible, though.

I just saw that the WP posts health code violations of DMV restaurants. What are your thoughts on visiting a place that shows up on the reports?

I wouldn't go out of my way to eat at one, but you can be sure it's going to be cleaner than it was before the inspection!

Am a bit curious why you let the restaurant off the hook so easily about the credit card. Sounds to me like the most likely situation is that a staff member stole the information.

But we don't know for certain.

I went to a few different countries in Europe in 1998, and every restaurant I went to back then used handheld credit card scanners - it's amazing almost 20 years later that still has not been widely adopted by restaurants in the U.S.

Europe is ahead of us in so many ways -- design-wise, art-wise, clothes-wise ...

Has never had a good rep going back 20+ years. Figure cost of opening even a small fine dining restaurant at a million + or more and investors aren't going to take the risk. 80%+ of restaurants fail. Hey Jose just keep opening restaurants outside the Dc area and my advice is just get out of area all together like other name chefs you food has gone down hill over the years.

I disagree about Andres. I think Jaleo is better than ever and Zaytinya continues to produce excellent mezze.

Love the weekly chats. Any suggestions for must-go-to restaurants in Miami? Heading there in a few weeks. Thanks!

Sorry to say, but Miami wouldn't rank very high on my list of interesting culinary destinations. Yardbird is your best bet for dinner there at the moment, followed by Tap Tap for a colorful Haitian experience.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Join me again next Wednesday and we'll do it again. Enjoy the remainder of your week.

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Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s sidewalk.com and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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