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

Jun 27, 2012

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

What was your reaction to the controversial speech at the Rammy awards?

You mean restaurateur Jeff Black's acceptance-speech rant about bloggers, in which he reportedly said, "It's great to see respect being given to people that work in the business that do the long hard hours, not the bloggers ...  the real work."? 


My colleague Tim Carman followed up with Black, who  amended his original statement. What drives the chef crazy, Carman writes, is  "the legion of uninformed, sometimes agenda-driven diners (like those angling for freebies or just looking to hurt a restaurant after they’ve had a poor experience)."


I can understand Mr. Black's point: Everyone's a critic these days, some are more qualified than others, and it's swell to be recognized for your hard work from your brothers and sisters in the trenches.



Good morning, gang. Because next Wednesday is a holiday (where will everyone be watching the fireworks?), we won't have a chat. But I'll be back again July 11 at 11 a.m.


Let's begin.

I just got an email notifying me that America Eats will close after a one-year run. But Jose Andres just said Minibar is moving to that space next to Zola. Any word on what's next for the former Cafe Atlantico space? Or does Jose's restaurant group not own it?

Yep. America Eats Tavern, which shares its building with Minibar, is expected to go dark on the Fourth of July. Minibar, meanwhile, is moving over to the former Zola Wine & Kitchen nearby, at Ninth and E streets NW. 


At the present and for the forseeable future, there are no plans to do anything with the space soon-to-be-vacated quarters at 405 Eighth St. NW. That said, Andres has long hoped to transform the building, which he and his partners own, into his fantasy Minibar.

Hi, I am lucky enough to be visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg for a week next month. Any suggestions on restaurants? Thanks,

I've not been to either city. Chatters?

Hi Tom, My husband and I slipped away for a rare date night while my parents were in town a few weeks ago. We went to a relatively casual restaurant in Dupont, that we have always enjoyed. It is not tiny, but certainly not huge. We were seated on the second floor, where only one other table was seated as well. This table was soooo loud and sooo rude. There were at least 5 people at the table and they were screaming, belching (repeatedly and loudly), cursing, laughing incredibly noisily, and loudly discussing sex toys. My husband and I could not even have a discussion because we were constantly interrupted by their noise and disgusted by their lack of manners. We were, however, concerned that if we asked to move, it may be perceived as being racially motivated (the table was made up of women a different race than us). We did not want to cause trouble. Is there a way we, or our server (who could easily tell that this table was disruptive) could have handled this?

You have my sympathies -- and three cheers for thinking of  the feelings of a bunch of raucus strangers.


In this case, however, I think you owed it to yourselves to request a floor and table change (disreetly, of course).  Instead, iIt sounds as if  you suffered in silence on a what should have been a relaxed getaway.

I was passing by the Montogomery Farm Womens Coop on Wisconin Ave. today and saw Hardy's BBQ truck with their BBQ grill parked in the lot. So I stopped because a grill is a good sign. Initial thoughts: Pretty good! Ribs -smokey and succulent, good sauce either sweet or hot or you can mix. The cole slaw was good- it was still crisp and had a light dressing. They gave me a sample of the beef brisket that was smokey and succulent too, which gives me more than enough reasons to go back. They said they are at the coop Wed, Fri, Sat and Sun for lunch, though their website says Sat and Sun lunch only.

I have to move that food truck higher up on my list of things to do! Thanks for the preview.  For more info, check out the caterer's website:

My husband and I will be celebrating our anniversary in August and we would like to head out to a nice dinner to celebrate, but we have a couple of stipulations to deal with. (1) I'll be 7 months pregnant at that point, so a focus on alcohol rather than the food is not ideal, (2) my husband isn't very adventerous with his food choices (for example, Rasika wasn't one of his favorites when we went last year) and (3) our budget would be around $150 for the two of us. Would prefer a few choices in DC or Old Town as we have eaten at most Arlington restaurants. Thanks!

Congrats. I'd be inclined to spend that money in the District at Mintwood in Adams Morgan (with the warning it can get noisy as the nigt wears on); Ardeo +  Bardeo in Cleveland Park (which has a new menu out, featuring corn-chive soup, softshell crabs with green papaya, even "steak & eggs");  Mourayo for Greek fare in cozy surroundings in Dupont Circle; or the recently reviewed, exceedingly gracious  Blue Duck Tavern in the West End.


In Old Town, I'd reserve at the always-interesting Vermilion, before Tony Chittum makes his exit.

Dear Tom, My dear husband arranged for us to have dinner at the Arena Stage Catwalk Cafe before we attended the Music Man two Saturdays ago to celebrate our wedding annivesary. I asked if he had checked your reviews or looked at the web for reviews, but he assured me that it was a good restaurant because he had to make reservations, and the price point was high. A warning to all who do not do their homework - we were seated at our table and told to go line up to get our food, served cafeteria style. It was a 20 minute wait. I am recovering from an ankle surgery, so I took the shorter trip to the bar and paid $17 for two white wines in what looked like a plastic cup and a bag of potato chips (that or pretzels are the appetizer options) and sat, waiting. Finally my husband brought us dinner - a salad ($12) for me and beef brisket ($17) for him - neither anything to note. I spoke to the person who sat us and someone who appeared to be the manager, saying that it would be a good idea to let people who call for reservations know it was a cafeteria and served wine in plastic cups. I was informed the cups were not plastic - they were biodegradable because it was a green cafe - not really my point. We sat near the stairs and saw a number of people bounce up with expectant smiles, then saw their faces fall and heard a lot of grumbling at nearby tables and in the line. It felt like we had made reservations for a fine restaurant but landed at a Smithsonian cafeteria. Clearly, a lot of us had not done our research. And on the other end, the Catwalk Cafe does not appear to want repeat customers. Fair warning to do your homework before going somewhere new!

 Great post. Thanks for taking the time to describe an unfortunate experience on what should have been A Night to Remember.


Today's Lessons, then:


Diners: Just because a place requires reservations and costs a lot of money does *not* guarentee a quality meal. 


Restaurateurs: The area near the Arena Stage is begging, DYING for good places to eat.  Consider plugging the gap with something destination-worthy.

My family and I are trying to make our way back to DC from abroad and a friend who is also an ex-coworker has provided an invaluable professional reference for a job that will likely be the key to our return. I thought a gift card to a great local restaurant would be a nice way to say thank you. We've been away several years so can you or your lovely readers tell me where in DC these days you'd want a free meal? While I'm at it, how much is enough to cover a meal - we want to show our gratitude but not go over the top or make them uncomfortable. Thanks so much!

I'm not sure what the beneficiary of your gift likes, foodwise, but if someone gave me $150 to eat at the charming Et Voila! in the Palisades, Palena in Cleveland Park, Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle, Fiola in Penn Quarter or  the Oval Room downtown, I'd be a very grateful friend.

Tom, on Twitter yesterday you posted about meals that were inedible, and yet you were still charged for them. That seems to happen all the time around here. On Saturday my bride & I were trying a new restaurant before going to the theater. Behind us was a family whose father's meal was overcooked. The server's response was: the chef was trying to make sure it was cooked through. The restaurant tried to do everything to make it right, except not charge for the meal. The restaurant offered a free meal next time, which wouldn't have helped, as this family was from out of town. I'm thinking restaurants are still struggling and can't afford the cash loss, even with the bad word of mouth. Too bad really, I won't recommend this place, even though our food was decent, because the place didn't make it right for the other family.

The brand-name restaurant that charged me $38 for inedible swordfish -- a dish that no one at the table could eat and everyone mentioned to our server -- is the one that bothers me the most. It could easily afford the deduction.  

Is this the week you admit you get preferential service at all the restaurants you go to?

Sounds like someone eager to pick a fight! Details, please. Specifics.


I don't deny I sometimes get preferential treatment. Sometimes I do, and I've written about the experience  in my reviews of Mio, Evening Star Cafe and Mintwood, among other establishments.  Sometimes I don't (and I prefer that, as anyone who really knows me, or has dined with me, knows).  Not once during my visits to Eastern Kabob & Sweet, Blue 44 or Jewel of India -- among other spots -- was I "made." 


Being recognized as a critic  just forces me to work harder and focus on how others in the dining room are being treated. More than a few times, I've also sent  anonymous friends into restaurants where I know they know me, to check out the performance of the front-house staff.


What exactly do you expect me to say or do? 


Tom, I love you, but the many vegetarians in your audience are finding your reviews very unreliable these days. Your write-up of 1789 this past weekend mentioned just about every mammal, fowl and fish known to western cuisine, but there was nothing vegetarian noted, unless you count the desserts. I realize the majority is interested in the meat dishes, but there are quite a few readers out there who want to know, 1. Is there at least one vegetarian entree on the menu, and 2. Was it something interesting? We're counting on you to help us out -- both with this information, and by regularly reminding restauranteurs that they should not drop the ball on this. In this day and age, there are many diners (vegetarian and otherwise) who want something lighter to eat.

Guess I should have included this in the review, but one of my guests at 1789 is a vegetarian, and there wasn't much for her to order, as I recall, aside from an apple salad and a (then-spring) vegetable tart, which sounded more interesting than it tasted.

I am a regular reader of your columns and chats meeting friends for dinner this weekend. They know that I follow the restuarant scene so are looking to me for a recommendation. They live out in Fairfax and probably don't want to come into the city and they are not particularly adventurous eaters. I would have taken them to Passionfish. I went years ago and really liked it, but your dining guide has warned me off - many thanks for that by the way. Do you have any other recommendations? Any help would be much appreciated.

Do you like Indian? I'm a fan of the festive Curry Mantra, which has a little something for everyone -- even live music some nights. Sakoontra, also in Fairfax, is decent for Thai food and if you want something dressier, there's Villa Mozart, which is good, but not as spot-on as it was when I last reviewed the Italian restaurant in the spring of last year. (I was in a month ago.)

After reading the complaints last week about overly salted food at Little Serow, my wife and I decided to head back there this past Friday to verify the reports. I am happy to say that the food is as lively and flavorful as ever, and there was not a single dish that tasted too salty. While complaints about the food being too hot are a possibility, in particular the fried rice cakes were tongue-scorching, the folks there tell you about the heat from the minute you step foot in the restaurant in order to make sure that patrons are comfortable with the menu. Additionally, the wait staff is playful and helpful in pairing drinks that will help to cool the tongue if the food is too hot. In short, Little Serow is exactly as advertised, and I hope it never changes.

Your post makes my day (in part because you sound like you know what you're talking about).

You do work? Gotta job? Got tools? No I don't use tools. How are you going to do the job without tools? I have WD-40, 40 working dogs and they do the work. Job paid great, $20,000 for a 10 minute job. This is Youngstown, they won't do the job for nuthin'.

And your question is .... ?

"Is this the week you admit you get preferential service at all the restaurants you go to?" For crying out loud, do we have to do this again? Look, the question has been asked and answered, repeatedly, ad nauseum. This horse has been beaten to death. Either you accept Tom's answer, or you don't -- and if you don't, then either ignore his reviews (there are other food writers in the area, you know), or take them with whatever size modicum of salt you deem appropriate, and gift it a [horse-beating] rest already. Sheesh.

You took the words right out of my mouth.

Why would the loud people even think it was related to their race? I think it's odd that you focused on that instead of the fact that they were ill-mannered and you deserved to have an enjoyable meal.

No, I actually think the poster has a fair point. You should see the mail I get from people who think they're being lumped together in a section, or given inferior service or whatever, based on their age/race/orientation, etc.

Tom, I've been saving up for a while to take my gf to Komi for our 2 year anniversary. But I've got some food allergies (dairy, sesame, and mushroom). When I was making the reservation, I asked if there would be a problem accommodating me. To my surprise, I was politely told that the chef wouldn't be comfortable creating a menu like this. I thought the whole point of not having a menu was so that the chef could find out your likes/dislikes and create something for you. Is Komi being really stritct about substitutions or am I just being sensitive?

Part of me feels for you, because Komi is an extraordinary dining experience provided you're open to all sorts of ingredients. 


Another part of me sides with the chef, who has a right to express himself the way he wants to on his menu -- right down to not offering substitutions or changes to something he's worked hard to put together. 


How does the group feel about this? I'm curious to hear from you.

That's exactly the information that should have been included in the review, as you said.

Duly noted. Thanks for keeping me on my wingtips.

Would people stop with this argument. At *best* it affects service and portion size, but it doesn't change the chef's fundamental ability to cook. If you're made and you think the service is affected by it, then note it, and if you have more food on your plate than others do, then note it, but otherwise, let's just let this canard go.

You are preaching to the choir.

Tom, I'm a vegetarian and what I don't expect from you is to give me a report on the one vegetarian item offered on a menu. But what is nice is when you note that a vegetarian would be happy at an establishment because they have more than one option that is good. As a vegetarian I find I don't want to patronize places that have only one option for me (because it's usually boring). Thanks for all your hard work.

Bless you. I hope the vegetarians out there know I *do* look for interesting options for them and I include in my regular cast of dining companions friends and others who eschew meat.

Morning, I see that Voltaggio's "Family Meal" is opening on July 7th for dinner only to begin. It will be interesting to see how this kind of menu flies in Frederick - still kind of expensive. Also I'm a little surprised by the somewhat unhealthy kid's menu. Thoughts?

Family Meal was expected to set sail over the weekend, but encountered a few blips and actually began serving dinner (only) last night, according to a publicist.  You're right about the kids' menu. Being a dad himself, I expect something less fried/meaty than Bryan Voltaggio's spaghetti and meatballs, burgers and such.  On the other hand, the chef probably knows his pint-sized audience, too. If  say, carrot salad isn't going to sell, it isn't going to sell.

Don't we deserve to know what restaurant served you a $38 inedible entree so as not to make that same expensive mistake?

You do. I am likely to write about it.


Question for the audience: Are you eating as much over-salted food as I am lately?  I'm on this streak where it tastes like even the big-deal chefs aren't tasting their food before it goes out.


Not sure of the source of the problem: smoking by the chef? Insecurity? Bad habit?

Any U Street recommendations these days? I don't think I've seen too many in recent chats or reviews.

Haven't spent much time in that part of town of late, but DC Noodles, Marvin, Bistro La Bonne and Fast Gourmet have all been fun in the past.

Shame, shame, Tom! That's a dangling participle if I've ever seen one. I expect more of you. . .

I realized that the moment I hit "send."  My apologies.


This forum is similar to live TV. You know that, right? I'm thinking/tyoing/researching answers on the fly.

For better service I always tell the server I'm a critic and write a weekly story for the paper. She says, what paper. I say I can't say. The service is always excellent.

You do? Has that trick ever back-fired on you?

Desserts, yes. I cannot wait for the salted caramel and salted chocolate fad to be over.

A pinch is nice. A pound, not so much.

Tom, a note to say that the live discussions are no longer on the home page of WaPo, so I had to go through search and find you, I'm sure many people are in the same boat. Can you please tell the website folks not to keep chaging the site? Things move around, it takes us a while to figure it out, and then they change again. Thanks for passing the word, and glad to be here.

There is a small Live Discussions module on the right hand side about half way down the page. Though that will only help you so much since this chat isn't one of the three featured there. Obviously Tom and I would prefer that this chat always be the highlight, but sadly we don't make that call. The good news is if you bookmark our discussions page,, it lists all the chats, and highlights those that are live at the moment.

"Question for the audience: Are you eating as much over-salted food as I am lately?" Yes! For instance, the last three times I went to Jaleo, most dishes were over-salted.

Seasoning can be such a personal thing, but I would much rather have to reach for a salt shaker than run my food through a rinse cycle. 

Maybe chefs become inured to salt over time? Over-salting does seem worse in the last couple of years than it has ever been before. I cringe when I see a cooking show and the chef talks about adding salt with every ingredient to "layer" flavors, or throws in handfuls of salt. You can always add more; you can't take it out!

Hear! Hear!

Why do I keep reading this word as indelible?

Put on your glasses. ;)

Friend had dinner there recently. Ready to order dessert after dinner, they were told "the kitchen has closed". Wow. Closed to people already in the restaurant?!

What time was this? Unless you were attempting to order a souffle or some such, I can't imagine a kitchen unwilling/unable to serve a slice of something sweet.

When I was little, back in the '60's, we used to take my grandma and great aunts to early dinners at restaurants out in the country with lovely gardens great ambiance. Olney Inn and Evans Farm Inn were two we especially liked. Now, about the only one left is Normandie Inn, which was never a favorite of ours. I notice that you have never reviewed it. Can you recommend any places in the area to have an early dinner on the weekend and enjoy the summer weather and flowers? Someplace elderly ladies may enjoy, not just very special occasion places like Inn in Little Washington.

Two places that spring to mind are L'Auberge Chez Francoise in Great Falls and further out, the Ashby Inn in Paris, Va.  Both claim lovely settings with good-to-great cooking.

when i made a reservation for the omakase at sushi taro, i mentioned that i'm allergic to crab. they replied that crab would not be served to any diners at the counter that evening. best night ever! i will absolutely return.

How reassuring! Now that's a restaurant I want to patronize.

Tom: I felt I had to add that perennial as a complement to the "admit you are recognized" trope. I find it exceptionally odd that people think they have the right to tell someone else to pack it in, especially as food critic jobs on major metro dailies are not exactly thick on the ground.

Hey, I can always wait tables again!

As a server in an upscale restaurant in the city (who has served you a handful of times) I've always wondered if you expect the establishment you're visiting to know you're coming. I would think it would be odd if restaurants of higher caliber DIDN'T recognize you... right? I mean.. it's kind of a big deal for the staff, your reviews directly affect business for the establishment (and thereby the money in our pockets, heh).

Sure, I understand. But seriously, what makes a critic most comfortable -- and I think I speak for 95 percent of my increasingly tiny industry -- is when the staff treats us  like anyone else who walks through the door. Danny Meyer in NYC is brilliant at teaching that to his many employees.

Depending on what kind of restaurant you're looking for, one fun place to eat in St. Petersburg is called "Masha i Medved" (the name of a popular Russian children's story). The decor theme is Russian folklore and children's stories - a bit kitschy, but still fun and uniquely Russian. The food is primarily "traditional" Russian dishes such as blini, beef stroganoff, etc. and very good, and the place is overall a bit more on the casual side with prices that are reasonable relative to St. Petersburg. It's set up for the local market rather than for foreign tourists (a plus in my book). I cannot remember whether they have an English-language version of their menu (I speak Russian, so this was not an issue for me), but even if you don't speak Russian you should not have much trouble. Oh, they also accept Visa/Mastercard. One place to AVOID is the Literaturnoye Kafe. This was once a great and elegant cafe/restaurant with a history going back to the time of Pushkin, but has since been condensed into a charmless second-story overpriced restaurant in order to make room for a "Subway" franchise.

(Insert Russian word for "thank you!" here.)

Hi, Tom. This may be too late to get in. Recently, my mother was a huge help to me during some difficult medical issues (thanks in no small part to her, I'm healthy now). She's in town and I'd really like to take her somewhere special for dinner as a small thank you for everything she did. Two catches: (1) she's a vegetarian, and (2) as she has gotten older, she's increasingly had difficulty with spicier, or more exotic cuisines, like Indian or Ethopian. Any recommendations? Thanks so much!

Set in a townhouse downtown, Elizabeth's Gone Raw does a Friday night dinner that is not only free of meat and dairy, the food is not  cooked beyond a certain temperature. That's one way to say thanks.

Patowmack Farm, across the river in VA from Point of Rocks, MD? I haven't been, want to give it a try sometime.

It's been years, but yes, check it out.

I also feel for the reader - food allergies suck. However, I think s/he is mistaken - the chef does not create a personal menu for you, it's a collection of dishes served to everyone. And unfortunately dairy is a particularly constraining allergy.

Right, I should have caught that. The only choice a diner makes at Komi is which of two entrees to get (well, and what to drink with the meal).

Can't afford to travel to Europe this year, but I would love to sit on a patio somewhere and enjoy a glass of chilled rose and enjoy a view with some simple seasonal fare with my escapist fantasies. Where would you recommend?

Does 701 have Tavel on its menu?


There you go (phonetically, at least)!

Hi Tom, my extended family is coming to D.C. for the first time and I'm having a challenge figuring out where to take them for a nice meal out. We're planning on a Monday, so getting in somewhere shouldn't be as tough, but I'm looking for somewhere that will appeal to their meat-and-potatoes sensibilities that isn't completely vanilla and also has a few non-meat options. Bourbon Steak would be perfect if not for the Bourbon Steak prices; was considering Ray's the Classics but would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you!

I like Ray's the Steaks, but I think you could be more creative, given we're in a world capital.  Think about a place that does meat well, but isn't necessarily American: Bamian for Afghan, El Chalan or La Canela for Peruvian,  just about any Korean restaurant, Oyamel for Mexican, Majestic in Old Town for American comfort food ....

Hi Tom - If you had to pick a post-proposal dinner, where would you go? Open to all types of food and price ranges. Thanks!

You mean Now-That-You-Said-Yes-Let's-Go-Eat?


Should that ever happen to me --- hint, hint! -- I would like to go someplace that I expect to be around for years to come, someplace cozy rather than super-fine.


A few thoughts: Et Voila!, Bombay Club (okay, kinda fancy), the bar at Palena, the bistro at Eve (ditto, but still), Standard BBQ ...


Running out of time, gang. Thanks for a lively hour. See yu back here on July 11. Enjoy your light show, wherever it may be!

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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