Ask Tom -- Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, comments, rants and raves.

Jun 06, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Tom -- I am gleefully returning to the DC area after a 3 year exile. What would you recommend as the first three not-on-the-scene-three-years-ago restaurants that my husband and I try out? As a frame of reference, our favorites before departing included Central, Tosca, Rasika, Capital Grille and Oceannaire -- we're not big on Asian food generally. Thank you and looking forward to spending time with you each week again!

Welcome back, Repatriot. You're returning to a market you make not recognize, with interesting new dining neighborhoods and a number of established chefs who have added to their portfolios.


Many restaurants could fit your bill. Right this moment, I'd suggest you start with Little Serow, a Thai oasis in Dupont Circle from Komi chef Johnny Monis;  Fiola, an Italian retreat in Penn Quarter from former Maestro chef Fabio Trabocchi; and Pearl Dive Oyster Bar, the fifth area restaurant from chef Jeff Black.  The last highlights seafood and sits in Logan Circle.


Good morning, gang. Lots to chew over today. There's a new chef at Wit & Wisdom in Baltimore. The owner of Lincoln is expanding the brand with another nod to a president. And ... what else? You tell me. Bring on your questions and comments.

Looking forward to you review of Curry Mantra that is coming out this week. I have eaten there two times in the past month and must say I agree with you that their biryani is some of the best I have had in this area in a long long time. They still need to work on consistency though. One time our biryani came out nice and hot and then the second time it was just luke-warm. I compliment the owner on investing money in making a very nice dining room and the live music on friday and saturday nights is a nice touch as well.

My review of the expanded Indian restaurant is online as of today. Curry Mantra is a welcome addition to Fairfax, for sure.

I was just there recently and had a mediocre dinner experience and inquired if Chef Eddie Moran was there and they said he was no longer with the restaurant. The staff also mentioned large turnover in the management staff as well. I used to be the biggest advocate for this gem tucked away in the SW corner, but it seems like it has fallen into disarray. Any thoughts?

Chef Eric Ziebold of CityZen confirmed Moran's departure several weeks ago just before the start of this chat.  "He decided to go in a different direction." Otherwise,  Ziebold  says there's not been much turnover in the top ranks of Sou'wester

When did it become common for waiters to ask "How does everything taste?" rather than the more general "How is everything?" I can't put my finger on why it bothers me, but I feel as though their asking about my taste experience is somehow too intimate. Also, it seems as though there is less they can do about the taste of the food than about, say, a missing fork or a need for hot sauce. I've noticed this in the last couple years in many cities, so I'm wondering if there is a reason for this trend.

"How does everything taste?"  sure beats what I've been hearing a lot lately: "Is everything delicious?"


Chatters, I'm curious to know how you prefer inquiries about your meal?

No stars on your Curry Mantra review? Mistake or new take on reviews?

Ah, the rating is two stars, or "good." We'll fix that asap.

With Clayton Miller moving to Baltimore any word who might be replacing him at Trummer's?

The owners of Trummer's on Main tell me they are looking for his replacement and they hope to hire someone by the end of the month. Big shoes to fill, they say, but they're confident they can find someone worthy.



it covers everything from "how does it taste" to "can I get you another glass of wine?"

Concise and open-ended. I like it.

I can't wait for his Calvin Coolidge-themed restaurant!

A Nixon-themed dining room ("I am not a cook!") could be interesting, too.

but do away with the preciousness. I once had dinner at Charlie Palmer and the waiter, when taking orders, asked "what will you be enjoying tonight?" My friend said, "I will be having the ribeye and I'll let you know about enjoying it later" which, while a bit pithy, was appropriate.


We went back recently with some friends who'd never been and I was disappointed. They seemed to have made the experience even more crowded? No room between the tables, for example and so loud. Also the service was chaotic. We all had mussels -- 2 asked for Diavolo, 1 for Pastis, and one for the original garlic. I think that one was the only one they got right. I think they delivered 2 Pastis to the Diavolo orders and gave a Diavolo to the Pastis. I like it all -- so I wasn't upset, but if we'd sent back our orders it would have taken a lot of time for correction. Anyway, have you been there lately and what did you think?

I was there in spring and enjoyed the experience. Et Voila! is definitely loud, but I haven't noticed a dip in service or cooking. I *do* hear from insiders that the Belgian restaurant gives preference to regulars. Maybe that's part of what your experiencing? 

Tom, In terms of frequency of eating out, I know you are off the curve compared to the rest of us. It's your job. But if you were in my demographic -- two working spouses, middle income, two kids, pretty decent home cook who enjoys time in the kitchen -- how often would you eat out? I ask because I feel like I can never keep up with all the options out there. (Feelings of inadequacy when compared to Tom?) And given my current scenario -- eating out once per week -- what would your strategy be? Just work your way down the list of best restaurants? Cultivate a stable rotation of three or four places? Thanks.

Interesting question. I'd guess that someone fitting your profile eats out about twice a week if you include a  casual restaurant in the mix.


Do you and your spouse have a date night once a month or so? I'd use an occasion like that to check out all the new restaurants.


If I wasn't in this job, I'd definitely patronize a handful of places I like on a steady basis. Patronage = better dining. 

my husband has a nut allergy. Typically he is fine at most restaurants, but with their policy should I find a different dining partner to try out the restaurant?

Alas, yes. Because the Thai eatery does not make substitutions on its menu.

Hi Tom, Had an amazing trip and since you seem to get this question a lot (including from me before I went), I'd love to provide my must goes Seville: Azotea and Eslava for eclectic tapas Barcelona - Cap Pep- sit at the bar and let them surprise you - El Quim- in the Boqueria- must get the fried eggs w/ squid..insane - Paco Meralgo- again sit at the bar- this is an elegant version of Cal Pep, but comparable prices. Must get the BOMBA!!! - Can Majo- near the beach, and the best seafood paella ever. nothing in DC comes close. Only Soccorat in NYC has been able to master this art. All of the seafood here is incredible Had an amazing time in both cities. And it's unbelievable how many litle ones our out during the late hours. Oh, and we sat right next to Thomas who owns Mas Spanish restaurant in Charlottesville. What a small world!! He mentioned your name and love of Jaleo :)

What a fun little postcard you just submitted. Gracias. I, too, am always amazed by the late hours Spanish families keep. They seem to be out and enjoying themselves until the wee hours, no matter te day of the week.

My favorite over the years is "Is everything as it should be?" Gee, I don't know, is everything as it should be - you tell me, since I've never dined here before!

That's a first for this diner.

We teach our service staff to be...less empty with their questions and ask more specifically "how is your duck confit tonight" or "isn't that limoncello reduction with the scallops delicious" personally, I find the ubiquitous "how is everything" along the same line as when I say thank you and the server says "no problem". Actually, that one is a bit more annoying than empty.

I *hate* to hear "No problem" in a response to a thank you. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Sounds sloppy to me.

We'd like to go to Little Serow next Thursday evening. What time do you think we'd need to arrive in order to be in the first seating? If we do have to wait, where would you recommend we go for drinks in the area?

Just to be safe, I tend to be there around 30 minutes before the place opens. Hank's Oyster Bar is a short stroll away.

My girlfriend recently got a significant promotion. I took her out when she found out, but it is a family tradition that whenever someone gets a new job, they treat to a nice dinner following the first paycheck. Any recommendations on where we should go? Some of our past favorites include Et Voila, Columbia Firehouse in Old Town, and Vidalia, but I think she'd like to try someplace new.

That's an eclectic mix of dining rooms you have there.  I'd check out someplace new, maybe Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan, Mio for its Friday night Puerto Rican cooking or  Boqueria for Spanish small plates. 

A Google User reviewed 3 months ago Overall 0 / 3 In short, there are much better Indian restaurants in the area. Don't waste your money and time on Curry Mantra. If you are Indian, avoid this place like a bad rash. The manager won't even acknowledge your presence. The food was nothing more than what you get at any average Indian restaurant. I am giving 1 star because our wait staff was nice. Disliked: Service, Food A Google User reviewed 12 months ago Overall 3 / 3 Fantastic! Excellent service, excellent food! The lamb is very lean and tender. Everything was delicious. They offered me a soft drink while I waited for my carry out order (which they filled very quickly). They even threw in some complimentary rice pudding. I will be coming back here again. Liked: Food, Service, Atmosphere A Google User reviewed 3 months ago Overall 0 / 3 Service is horrible. We started using the restaurant when it opened in summer 2011 and loved the food. The service was very good too, and continued to be good for a couple of months. Service has gotten progressively worse over time. The last time we went our waiter couldn't be bothered with us, as both he and the owner were playing something on the computer. The other three waiters mainly stood around talking, ignoring the eight customers. The food--whenever it arrives at the table--continues to be okay. We stopped by this week to grab a quick bite and arrived--literally--one minute before opening. We were told to go stand on the side walk. We waited a few minutes, and left when they still hadn't opened. Never going again ... maybe for takeout. One last thing, the lunch buffet is not very good. Liked: Food Disliked: Service A Google User reviewed 5 months ago Overall 0 / 3 Worst Manager Ever.. Very Rude to Customers when I pointed out his Fault. Food is strictly ok Disliked: Service, Food A Google User reviewed a month ago Overall 1 / 3 Good Food. Horrible Service. Some staff is courteous, but most of them have an attitude, and it's not a good attitude. A Google User reviewed 9 months ago Overall 2 / 3 The atmosphere is warm and pleasant. The chicken was very tender in the chicken shahi korma and we enjoyed flavors. The goat balti is a nice combinations of vegitables in a Ginger and garlic sauce. We'll definitely be back and bring our friends. Liked: Food, Service, Atmosphere, Value

My head is spinning from reading these mini-reviews.


Having just eating around in northern Indian, I can vouch for the cooking and the (slightly quirky) service at Curry Mantra.

The problem with this approach is that the server would have to ask each diner at the table individually; we KNOW how that would go over with a 6-top. I like how is everything because it covers the food, the service, the atmosphere, and allows me to address any problem of any nature I have.

No arguement from me.

Tom -- Seems like every new (and not-so-new) restaurant we try is sooooo loud. The servers are screaming at the patrons, the patrons are screaming at each other. It's so uncivilized. But to me, it also seems like the chefs can't possibly want their food to be taken seriously since it's impossible for a patron to enjoy the food in a welcoming environment. I know I'm not the only one who complains about this but why are chefs to deaf to the complaints?

Because its cheaper to leave tables uncovered, walls unsoftened and floors bare. And because some owners equate noise with buzz. And because most patrons would rather walk into a cocktail party than a mausoleum. 

Tom, I had written you weeks ago about a situation I had at the downtown Jaleo shortly after the relaunch, it has always been one of my favorite restaurants and I was dissappointed at the service and reaction to my complaints that I received. The follow up is that I received a phone call (actually several since we played a bad game of phone tag) from Jorge, the manager who listened to my issue and offered a sincere apology. It was all I really needed. I promised to come back and give the new menu another try. Anything you think I should specifically try?

Here's what I liked from the new menu.

Tom - usually, I agree with your assessments, so when I read your latest review of O'Leary's in Annapolis in the Spring guide on May 20, I was considering cancelling our reservation for the following Monday. However, we did keep it, and I have to report that our meal was wonderful. Shrimp with garlic, zarzuela, soft shell crabs with fried green tomatoes - all of it was delicious, and the service was as good as ever. Maybe they read your review and snapped to attention...

Pleased to hear that. Because what I experienced was really disappointing, a far cry from the very good seafood source O'Learys used to be.

I still hear this when paying cash for a bill & it really, really annoys me. Why cannot servers merely say "I will be right back with your change?" Then if appropriate, I can tell them to keep it. I have put down a $50 bill for a $15 tab & been asked "Need change?" What can I say to them to have them STOP IT?

In their defense, serves can't always immediately see how much money you've left in the check holder, but I hear you. The question also saves them a few seconds. They might have to return to your table if you want change, right?

How about "ce n'est rien" in response. basically means no problem.

Everything sounds better in French, no?

My brother used to be a waiter, and he said he always preferred to ask a specific question about a specific item that was ordered. He found that people were more willing to be honest about that item and anything else than if he had a very general question. A general question got a general response, where his specific question got a specific response and was more likely to lead to the diner to open up about other issues.

Right. But asking everyone at thetable about every single dish could be seen as intrusive.

Seems like they can't win either way. General question or specifc. Sigh. Glad I don't wait tables any more!

That makes two of us!

They don't have to see how much money you've left. All they have to do is say, "I will be right back with your change."

Fair point.

The pasta was well-cooked, tender but still retaining a bit of chew, and I detected a soupcon of nutmeg in the ricotta florentine sauce. But my glass is dirty.


Hi Tom, Just arrived in London (for the post-Jubilee quiet) - two weeks of vacation! Any new or well-tested restaurants that I must try? The only postcard I found was from 2005 - wasn't sure if you had any updates. Thanks for everything! David

Here's my most recent column from London.

I'm looking forward to my first visit to Fiola Saturday night. Any tips on what to order or avoid?

I love the red pepper and anchovy salad, almost any of the pastas, the meatballs, the branzino with belon oysters, the cocktails ...

So, I know you get questions along these lines a lot, but... I'm leaving DC in August. What restaurants would be on your bucket list for $30 or less a person? I'm thinking places along the lines of Bangkok Golden, Ethiopic, and Comet Ping Pong - inexpensive yet delicious food. Metro accessible a plus but not an absolute must.

I'd add Thai X-ing, Haven Pizeria, the new LacoMelza -- among many others -- to your farewell tour.

Pet Peeve. Caesar Salads on menus that aren't really a Caesar Salad. My definition: romaine plus a real Caesar dressing. A salad that comes *with* anchovies unless requested otherwise. Seems simple enough. Where in DC/NoVa can I find one? Preferably prepared tableside by someone who knows what they are doing? You rock!

The finest example around is in Old Town, at Majestic, which does its Caesar salads beside the table and seasons them to your preference. I wish more restaurants would copy the behavior.


I'm starved. Thanks for chatting with me and be sure to check in again next Wednesday. Ciao for now.

In This Chat
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 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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