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

Jun 20, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

My wife and I finally decided to try citronelle last weekend. The food was very good, but not decernably different than the Tabord Inn, for example. Based on ours tastes, which favor more ethnic-type food, I'd say that Raisika, Oyamel and Zaytinya, to name a few, are significantly better. The service was also not better than any of the restaruants I just named. Thus, our experience made me wonder, what makes you consistently rank Citronelle at the top of the DC area's restaruants. Could you explain?

As much as I admire the cooking at Tabard Inn, it is much less complex than what Michel Richard is serving at his eponymous Citronelle.


The French chef's food is playful yet sophisticated. Witness his escargots "porcupine" and  "Rubber Ducky" fashioned from meringue for dessert, two of a handful of dishes I sampled last year that kept Citronelle in the ranks of the city's four-star performers.


On the other hand, yes, the underground dining room needs a make-over and yes, the service could use some polishing.  Unfortunately, known diners can receive better service than unknowns at Citronelle.


Good morning, chatters! Lots to fuel the discussion today.


Did you hear that Jeff Buben, the owner of Bis and Vidalia,  has bought Potenza from the Stir Food Group?  The 10,000-square-foot Italian restaurant and bakery is expected to close Aug. 18, after which Buben plans to install "two concepts under one roof"  in "the greatest neighborhood in the city."  Details remain sketchy, but the veteran restaurateur says the project is a "collaborative effort" with some of his long-time employees," and  "a way to move forward and grow" his business. 


Also, DC Eater, Don Rockwell and other online food sites are suggesting that Buddha Bar has closed.  The evidence: locked doors, unanswered phone lines, missing patio furniture and a dark Open Table account.


Let's begin.

Hi Tom - I had a great meal last night at Green Pig Bistro in Clarendon. Start to finish they really knocked it out of the park. However, the dining room temperature was really bizarre. In some spots it was really uncomfortably warm and in other areas it was just right. Have you heard anything similar?

I have not. Did you ask anyone about the fluctuation? And where did you end up sitting at the newcomer?

Could we put a moratorium on questions/comments concerning children in restaurants and whether Tom should retire from his current post because he is recognized? Or could we at least restrict those questions to an annual or semi-annual chat, like an awful version of the Holiday Hootenanny?

I don't want to ban either subject -- any subject, really -- but I'll restrain from addressing questions/comments relating to both kids and tenure for the duration of today's chat. Cool?

Hi Tom! Unfortunately for me and my family, your review of BR came out a week after we went. Having just moved to the neighborhood (and eager to try all of H Street's new restaurants!), we were very excited to take our out of town family to BR for Sunday brunch. First, our waitress took our drink orders (we all ordered from the "special" brunch drink menu). It took at least 20 minutes to get our drinks, and since we arrived right after opening, there were only about 3 other full tables in the entire restaurant. Thus, no excuse for bad service. We all ordered from the brunch menu, and, as with the drinks, it took at least 30 minutes for the food to arrive. In hindsight, I wish I'd just left. My mom and I ordered the Sunday quiche (on the recommendation of our waitress). To summarize: bland, room-temperature, very runny. My brother and husband both got the Peanut Butter & Banana Monte Crisco. Except there was no peanut butter. They both said it was terrible. Overall I would have been better heating a frozen quiche from Trader Joe's than taking them there. I really, really wanted to like this place, so it's a huge letdown to have such a bad experience.

I'm not sure what's going on over there. I had high hopes for Boundary Road when I previewed the place for my First Bite column.  I was surprised and disappointed, then, to end up writing a 1 1/2 star review for the Magazine.


Chatters, what has been your experience there?

I haven't been to Siroc lately, nor have I read anything about it. Is it still as good as it was?

I admired the intimate restaurant when it opened, but Siroc is no longer the reliable pleasure it used to be, unfortunately. (Nice patio, though!)

Tom, I got a new job--hip hip hooray! And now to celebrate. Drinks with the girls tomorrow and drinks with the hubby on Friday (post We are in Old Town. I'm thinking Virtue one night and ?? the other?

If you want to keep it in the family, so to speak, you could toast your good news with a beer-swirled cocktail at Virtue Feed & Grain, owned by Cathal Armstrong and company, and continue the celebration with your husband at the speakeasy known as PX, Restaurant Eve or Majestic  -- all in Old Town and all run by Armstrong.

Hi Tom - going to the Kennedy Center this Saturday night, and was wondering if there are any good restaurants within walking distance. I know I've seen one mentioned that has some sort of shuttle where if you eat there they'll take you to the KC but don't remember the name. So if you or the audience can help me out it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

The best/easiest deal is to take advantage of the pre-theater menu and car service offered by the French-themed Marcel's on Penn. Ave. NW.

Tom, my faith in you and the online peer-reviewing community has been rattled. Little Serow was probably the biggest disappointment in recent memory. A couple good dishes to start and then it just went right off the deep end. Everything was so heavily salted that it was mostly inedible. Extreme heat just for the sake of extreme heat with no attempt to actually develope any sort of flavor profile. A couple of very mediocre vegetable dishes right in the middle of the service. The recurring theme of vegetables just drowning in sauce. And how is he calling this Thai cuisine without a noodle dish, coconut milk, or curry anywhere in sight?! If this is the hottest seat in town right now, then I'm giving our restaurant scene too much credit, I'm afraid.

You are the first diner to report such great dissatisfaction with Little Serow.  I don't recognize the place you've just described, but you can be sure I'll give it another taste-test.

Hi Tom, We love Korean food, and when we lived in Virginia had easy access to all the great places in Annandale. But now we live in Montgomery County (North Bethesda). Any suggestions for good Korean restaurants in this neck of the woods? thanks!

I'm hearing good things about the small Moa Restaurant in an industrial area of Rockville at 12300 Wilkins Ave.  I tried to go over the weekend, but the place was closed because of a lack of AC.

The list of Q&As shows Tuesday. Why is it so difficult to have the correct day's sessions listed?

Huh. My home page shows Wednesday discussions (and has since 6 a.m. this a.m.)

My wife and I are young-ish and went to Citronelle for a special anniversary dinner a few years back. The food was wonderful, but the service is what is keeping us from returning. It was definitely lacking and not what I would have expected from the restaurant. On the other hand, we've dined at CityZen many times, where the food AND service keep us coming back for more.

There are a handful of truly charming servers at Citronelle and a few kill joys who just go through the routine.  I've experienced both over the years.

Just wanted to say that my husband and I were similarly disappointed when we went to Little Serow back in December. About half the dishes were really good. A couple were quite heavily salted as the previous commenter mentioned - my husband has since referred to them as "inedible" although I didn't think they were quite that bad. Overall, it just wasn't the amazing experience we had heard about and hoped for.

That's troubling to hear. Thanks.

Hi Tom - Have you tried any of the new restaurants in Petworth? I live in the neighborhood but don't get out all that much. I am going to make an exception this weekend and take my husband out for dinner and then drinks. What do you suggest?

The place I'm most excited about, the place I'm most eager to return to these days, is the new Chez Billy: solid French food in a moody little dining room from the folks who brought us Marvin off U St. NW.

Little Serow serves food from one specific region of Thailand - not from the Thai take-out place down the street from you. It's not Johnny Komis's fault that green curry isn't part of that tradition.

Meant to flag that detail earlier: the food from northeastern Thailand is bolder, with lots of hot and sour notes runnning through it.  It should not necessarily be saltier, however.

...why do you still give it four stars? You've always indicated that a restaurant has to be really, really exceptional to merit that rating. I would think that a restaurant that treats some customers (regulars/VIPs) better than others, and that retains some mediocre servers, would not reach the four-star level -- no matter how lovely and innovative the food is.

Food counts for double in my ratings. In past reviews, I've mentioned that Richard's genious and technical skill give the restaurant its advantage. 

Hi Tom, a thought; while I understand slow service to be problematic (sometimes more than others) I don't necessarily consider slow service to be bad service. Bartenders making several drinks especially in this day of the "specialty cocktail can take awhile. Kitchens get bogged down with floods of orders/special orders ect. but if my server is gracious, knowledgeable and (most importantly) keeps me informed I can't say service was "bad".

I agree: slow service is not necessarily inferior service, with the caveats you note.  If there's a delay, for instance, let a diner know!

Tom, Thanks for doing a First Bite on Tel'Veh. I work near the restaurant and have been curious about what you'd think of it. I've been for lunch but not dinner, and their dinner menu looks really lacking to me. Something I found odd about the restaurant are its hours. They close in the afternoon and don't reopen until like 5 or 5:30. If they want to attract nearby office workers for happy hour (which I imagine they would), they really should re-open no later than 4, as many folks get off by that time. For me personally, I would go there after work to enjoy their wines, but not if there is a 90-minute gap between when I finish and when they open.

I think Tel'Veh is still feeling its way around and trying to get a sense of the neighborhood. I  simply wish the wine-themed eatery would stock its kitchen with a stove!

I usually just follow these chats but I felt compelled to write in to defend Little Serow. My boyfriend and I have eaten there 3 times since its opening and have truly enjoyed each of our experiences. Part of our enjoyment definitely stemmed from our already liking spicy food, but we expected and actually enjoyed how different the flavors were from the typical Thai food of curries, noodles and peanut sauce. Obviously some people might not enjoy such a stark difference but personally, I find the food and the service at Little Serow to be wonderful.

Thanks for sharing.

I agree with the posters' comments about Little Serow. It was good, although much of the food was so spicy that it was practically inedible. I've been once and won't be back. I'm not sure why folks continue to line up for dinner.

Because some of us like heat, maybe?

Can I please give props to Oyamel? My sweetie and I go there for brunch at least once a month, give or take, when we want to escape mimosa and waffles, and sit at the bar for brunch. It's a great change of pace, the food is great - I'm addicted to the melty cheese - the bartenders and plate runners are first rate. And, the drinks... Oh, the drinks! This past weekend, even though they were busy with father's day, we had another very great brunch there with excellent service.

Oyamel, consider yourself hugged today.

I have been parking at the KC, taking their shuttle bus over to going to District Commons, or BTS, and hopping the bus back. THey do have valet parking that isn't outrageous but I am fundamentally cheap.

Useful to know! Thanks for writing.

Will in the long run kill even a four star restaurant becuase sooner or later the VIPS and other important folks leave for the next big place. If Mario or Boobie Flay open a fining dining restaurnt in DC Poor Ricky will lose his VIPs etc. Treat all customers like they were your in laws or your banker!


Woomi Garden in Wheaton has delicious Korean food including in table BBQ in a setting much quieter than Honey Pig. Enjoy!

Thanks for the idea.

Tom, Has there ever been a restaurant you gave four stars and then later gave it a lower rating?

Funny you should ask! In 2009, I gave the aforementioned Citronelle a half-star demotion, in part because its then-chilly service.

Tom, have you ever thought that maybe that's the problem with your reviews? I'm not a food critic for the Washington Post (with my picture in the kitchen of many restaurants) , so I don't get the service you do. It must be nice to get excellent service, yet as an average Joe Sixpack treating my girlfriend to a nice dinner I'm lucky to get "average" service.

You get average service *everywhere* you go?


I might be recognized in a lot of places, but the funny thing is, that doesn't guarantee me better service. Just this past week, someone who knew me delivered a cocktail in a clearly cracked glass. At another restaurant where I was recognized, it took forever to get menus and the bill. 

Curious for your take. Open Table solicits feedback on restaurant experience. I generally provide it, good or bad, but I don't really expect anything from it. I informed one highly regarded restaurant that 3/4 of our meal was excellent and one dish was a miss, we were overcharged for one small item, and our service was inconsistent as our server vanished for long stretches and didn't serve food in a refined manner as I'd expect at such a restaurant -- didn't hand us plates but practically slung them diner style. I didn't respond looking for anything, but just assumed the restaurant would want to know, otherwise why ask? I was surprised to get a call-back from the manager. While I appreciated the gesture, I wasn't really looking for anything in return. Just providing honest feedback as requested. Do the restaurants really want the TRUTH . . . or just the :-)Truth:-) ? What's an appropriate response where a meal was overall good but there were a few minor issues?

The truth can hurt sometimes, but I'd like to think chefs appreciate constructive criticism. Maybe not right in the middle of the dining room on a Saturday night, but for the future.

Sorry would refuse service. Yeah I know i would killing the goos that laid the golden egg in short run but in the long run dont need the publicity and hassles from any prez and FLOTUS eating at my establishment.

For real? You must run a busy shop!

In theory, it's a good idea. In practice, if you're sitting next to a table of people who are being absolutely fawned over, while you sit there with an empty water glass while desperately trying to catch the eye of someone, anyone who works there because your stomach is rumbling so loud it sounds like a monster truck show... Yes, I've experienced this a few times in DC. And, no, I will not ever return to a restaurant that does that. It's elitist and snobby...and implies my money is somehow inferior to that of Captain Mucky-Muck.

I hope restaurateurs and waiters everywhere are reading this; diners *do* notice when their neighbors get the full court press of love and they don't. It's all about spreading the love around.

Chef Michel Richard is eponymous -- he has something named for him. His restaurant is an eponym. Thank you for your time.

The perils of live discussions! (Merci.)

Hi Tom, Thanks for letting my question through. I'm looking for a rehearsal dinner space for 25-30 guests that is business casual with good food. The group has no major dietary restrictions (although the restaurant needs to be handicapped accessible) and shouldn't be too too loud. Great food and proximity to the Willard is most important to us. Where would you recommend? Thanks for helping out! -- Mia

The second-floor Cafe du Parc is nice, provided it has an elevator (no one was picking up the phone there when I called multiple times yesterday).

Cant afford to upset my regualr customers and walk ins for that night. And then sorry been there and done the POTUS visit. Wasnt worth it in the long run. Sont need the checks from the SS and other hassles that cost me money and time away from the restaurant etc. Just aint worth it.

And which establishment are you writing from, curious chatters want to know?

About those waiters who just phone it in at an expensive restaurant, why doesn't the owner or a manager do something about this? Do they not keep up with your chat? Are they resting on their laurels?

One possible explanation: It's hard to fire family.

What is your impression of celebrity chefs who are almost never at the restaurant they created? I don't mind paying "scalpers prices" for a meal, like Charleston in Baltimore where chef Cindy Wolf always seems to be present, but I refuse to dine at an establishment where the chef almost never makes an appearance and the meal is prepared by some member of the kitchen staff.

It depends. Of course it's reassuring to see a top draw in his or her kitchen, but the reality is, few are, though the really smart ones have No. 2s trained to cook in their style.  I'm thinking now of Jose Andres -- who is around more than you might imagine in his DC establishments.  


You know who else seem to be glued to their kitchens? Cathal Armstrong over at Eve and Frank Ruta of Palena. I admire their work ethic and their determination to do things the right way, always.


Don't forget about Johnny Monis. I've seen him everytime...3 times at Komi and twice at Little Serow.

Yes, yes, to Mr Monis!

Tom- I am headed to my girlfriend's native Denver, CO to meet her family and other important people. I'd love to make a good impression and take her mother out to lunch (always good to score points with mom). I hoping for somewhere that is special, but not exorbitantly expensive...under $100 for three of us with a glass of wine or cocktail each. Specific location isn't very important as we'll be seeing most of the city, and no restrictions on what type of food other than my skills with chopsticks probably won't make the statement that I'm hoping for... I'd really appreciate your help, never steered me wrong in the past!

Time is running out, but during a trip there in January, Euclid Hall was my favorite meal. Big, fun, interesting space.


Gotta run, folks. See you next Wednesday, same time.

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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 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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