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

Jun 13, 2018

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 see you're going to do some dining in LA. If I were there, here's the spots I'd want to try: Vespertine Dialogue APL Can't wait to see how your list compares.

I'm back from my West Coast tour, which included 48 hours in San Francisco.  In Los Angeles, the stand-out meal was Bavel in the Arts District, a fabulous Middle Eastern experience from the owners of the ever-popular Bestia downtown.  But I also enjoyed happy hour at the spirited BS Taqueria across the street from the romantic Nomad hotel. 

 

I woke up Friday morning to a heart-stopping text from my brother in Washington and news of the tragic death of Anthony Bourdain, who I met just before he became the mega-star he was when he died by his own hand in France. So sad. The Post did a superb job of covering the event, and I especially appreciated the appreciation from my colleague Tim Carman.

 


The first time I interviewed Bordain , in one of the first restaurants he worked in, he told me cooking and writing “are both endurance sports. You do them in the face of little success, and you do it every day.” Same could be said of living. What a loss, not just for the food world, but for anyone who cares about the pleasures and politics of the table.

 

In other news, Giada De Laurentiis has a new place to eat in Baltimore, at the Horseshoe Casino, and a couple of world leaders had an interesting mix-and-match lunch in Singapore on Tuesday. (Of *course* there was beef and ice cream.) 

 

What's on your mind today? I'm all ears. But I'm also on major deadline, so I'll just be here to address 20 or so questions. (You want to see a review on July 1, right?) Thanks to all of you who submitted questions in advance. The early bird definitely gets the worm.

 

Let's get cracking.

 

 

I think Bruce Buschel of NYT has addressed most if not all of your peeves in this link and it's follow on: https://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/one-hundred-things-restaurant-staffers-should-never-do-part-one/

Wow, what a comprehensive list of do's and don'ts! I had to laugh at No. 21. "Never serve anything that looks creepy or runny or wrong."  

 

Which reminds me. A couple chats ago, the topic of warm red wine came up, and I mentioned that I sometimes plop an ice cube in my glass to remedy the problem. A couple of (smarter) readers followed up with better ideas.

 

Rich Gregory of Charlottesville suggests the following: "Ask for another empty water glass and a cocktail napkin. Pour your full water glass into the empty one. The one that is now empty is at 32 F and has a much larger mass than a regular serving of red wine.  Wipe the cold, empty water glass mostly  dry with the napkin.  Pour the red wine into the cold glass.  Do this at home to see how fast the wine cools.  Pour the red wine back in the wine glass and enjoy."

 

Then there's this even simpler suggestion, from Virginia Machado: "We keep some grapes in the freezer.  A couple frozen grapes can cool the wine without diluting it." 

 

Hi Tom - long-time reader, first-time questioner. I had an excellent dinner at A Rake's Progress a couple of weeks ago and would like to treat a friend and his family to a meal there for Father's Day. I've called multiple times and emailed a couple of different accounts for the restaurant & the hotel (also multiple times) to ask if I could provide my credit card for their reservation, but haven't received a response. The complete lack of care and attention here is frankly disappointing. Any thoughts on how to get a response from them?

Public shaming works on occasion. Let's see if broadcasting your post in this forum gets anyone's attention at the high-end restaurant in the Line hotel in Adams Morgan. You are not the first reader to complain about poor communication at A Rake's Progress.  (To both the original poster and the restaurant: I can be reached at tom.sietsema@washpost.com.)

Hi Tom--regular local reader here. I fully understand the need to check out new places, trendy places, and high-class places (sometimes a restaurant is all three!) I frequent all of the above as time/finances allow. More commonly however, I frequent older, less popular places. I love to try new places and take a gamble. I have had great meals at Taste of Jamaica in Columbia Heights, Benito's Place in Shaw and BAB Korean in the Atlas District, just to name same recent "discoveries." I'd love to get your polished prose and palate into more of these places. You introduced me to Bangkok Golden so many years ago after all, and of course your recent review of Tortino was very welcome. Here's one reader's plea to shine your spotlight on a few more humble, yet deserving establishments as time permits.

Past spring guides, in which I returned to previously reviewed restaurants for a pulse check, have dealt with just what you're talking about. In light of all the interesting new restaurant this year, however, I changed course and offered a new theme.

 

But I'm listening! Tortino is one example of an oldie that remains a goodie. And I'm poised to file a fresh review on a long-time haunt in Old Town Alexandria next month. Stay tuned. 

Hi Tom, I'm a big fan of the tasting menu at Rose's Luxury - I think it's a very fair price for the amount of food you get, and it's simply delicious. A group went last winter, and for $75/person, we had more food than we could finish. Am I the only one tired of the 3 item pre-fixe menu for over $100 in DC? Do you have any suggestions for other places in the area that do chef tasting menus in a similar manner for a reasonable price?

One that comes to mind is the Peruvian tour for $55 at China Chilcano in Penn Quarter, one of the many colorful restaurants watched over by (where in the world is) Jose Andres

Hey, Tom. In last week's Chat you noted one of your pet peeves: "What bothers me is when two parties are seated right next to each other in an otherwise empty dining room." While I always agree with you, just wanted to tell you about visiting the English city of Bath recently. Went to a great restaurant called Clayton's Kitchen (highly recommend it). We were seated RIGHTNEXTTO a couple in their '70s in a pretty empty room. We made our apologies to the couple, who joked about moving away to get some space. Long story short: we struck up a convo over lunch and got along so well, they invited us to dine that night at their mansion overlooking the city. The husband is a "Sir" (OBE, knighted by Queen E), the wife is a local chef & artist. Their house looked like something out of an episode of "Downton Abbey." They couldn't have been nicer to us, and we had the experience of a lifetime...all because the maitre d' sat us virtually atop their table!

That's one way to turn lemons into lemonade. Great story. Thanks for sharing. 

Hi Tom, I think I read that a lot of food critics would rather not write a review if it is going to be bad AND the restaurant is a mom and pop that would suffer (versus a bad restaurant with deep pockets). Is that true and how often does that happen?

I have no problem writing a negative review, although I wouldn't go out of my way to pan a mom and pop because ... why waste the real estate in the Magazine on a business that not many readers would care about?  I'm lucky, in that there are plenty of interesting great establishments to cover in the DMV. And also sufficient numbers of bad (if prominent) restaurants to balance the mix.

This is great! I would add that servers should indicate the prices of the specials when explaining them, and menus should indicate whether beverage refills are free.

Yes and yes.

One advantage of a restaurant's doing the precharge thing is that the reservationist will usually call to confirm, which allows me to bring up my dietary issue (no crustaceans). And I have NEVER had an issue with the restaurant when I brought this up. In fact, they've been uniformly gracious, even at places that have a fixed menu every evening. (Maybe they don't want to mess up everyone's experience with an anaphylactic incident.) On the other hand, I've been totally embarrassed by a vegan dining companion who announced his needs at the table, then was put out when he got plain grilled vegetables. At that point, I was willing to at least partially agree with Tony Bourdain.

While a lot of restaurants call customers to remind them of upcoming reservations -- something not every diner appreciates -- no one should count on the pre-check. If you have a specific need or wish, in other words, it's best to make the request known up front, maybe even multiple times, ahead of actually sitting down at the table.

 

Chefs don't like to be surprised during risk hour on a Friday; customers owe it to the restaurant (and themselves) to provide as much notice as possible regarding off-the-menu requests.

Hi Tom - I am returning back to DC in a few weekends to visit. I moved out of town early this past year and am only in town for the weekend (two dinner reservations). Can you recommend two restaurants that have opened over the past 6 months that can't be missed by someone who was once an avid DC foodie? Looking to stay in DC proper and go somewhere that takes reservations. Right now, I'm thinking a dinner at Primrose and a brunch at Elle. Thank you!

Mind if I tweak your dining schedule? I'd do brunch at Del Mar, the glam Spanish restaurant in the Wharf, and dinner at Elle, my No. 1 favorite new restaurant. (Primrose is fun, but Del Mar gives you an opportunity to check out the amazing waterfront development.)

Have you been to the Green Pig Bistro in Clarendon recently? They've hired a new executive Chef Miljohn Dimaano. He's been doing some unique filipino influenced dishes. Just curious on your thoughts. -P

On my (admittedly long) list!

Hi Tom - I had originally planned to go to Kinship for an upcoming birthday (and scored the perfect reservation time!), but now my husband needs to travel for work during that time. Do you have any recommendations for a restaurant that has good food, a quiet atmosphere, and would have a reservation a week out? We'll be leaving our two toddlers at home with a sitter, so we would like to take advantage and go someplace that we couldn't go to with our kiddos. Thanks in advance!

Good, quiet and easy to access? Corduroy, the townhouse restaurant with solid American cooking by veteran chef Tom Power fits the bill. One of my favorite dishes on the menu is peppered tuna on coconut rice. 

Birthday is coming up soon, and it's on the weekend, so I'm open to going into the city for special trip, otherwise I'd stick with the NoVa suburbs. I'm open to trying one of your favorites, the caveat being I don't want to spend more than maybe $300 for two, including wine. I'm fairly open on cuisine.

There's lots to ponder in my recent spring guide (check out the Top 10 list). If you can squeeze in, Chloe, Maydan and Bresca have what you're looking for.

My husband and I went to Komi on Friday for my birthday. Even though we only go a few times per year, the staff remembered us and treated us like family. As always, the food and wine parings were an absolute triumph! Great food and a wonderful, educated staff -- who could ask for a better birthday gift!!

I love Komi, too. My only complaint is the epic length of the meal. No menu is offered at the beginning, so you have to guess when the end might come. Invariably, I'm full before the (strapping) main course is set down. On the bright side, leftover goat or suckling pig make for a great lunch or dinner the next day. 

As a resident of the SW Waterfront, the Wharf's many new restaurants have been very exciting for my wife and I. We've now tried all of them at least once, except the pricier Del Mar and Requin, and while we've had a lot of great individual dishes, we've also had a lot of clunkers, as well as lots of indifferent service. Mi Vida has been a bright spot in both categories, so kudos to them, but has your experience been similar to ours? Is there a staff shortage in both the front and back of houses? Are some of these chefs stretched too thin? I

Actually, I've encountered pretty good, pretty consistent serve in that part of town, which I attribute to 1) the allure of the chefs or brands there and 2) the popularity of businesses on the waterfront. There seem to be few slow days there. Severs make money, in other words, and stay busy.

Hi Tom! Thanks so much for the insight, experience and great personality you bring to this chat. I always look forward to reading this chat and your articles, and since I travel to DC often for business, I love doing the "follow up research". Anyway, I took a group of 9 to the Unconventional Diner this week and it was FANTASTIC from start to finish. From the food (apps, entrees and desserts), to the service and everything in between. We loved the corn muffin appetizers - and the accompanying butter was a huge hit, the pot pie poppers were the perfect tasty bite, and per the other dinners, the meatloaf was outstanding. I loved the fried chicken and the collard greens were a standout. Anyway, just wanted to say thank you. I tried the restaurant on your recommendation and I'll definitely be going back.

Take a bow, chef David Deshaies and company! 

I know you are a huge fan of Portland, Oregon, but what about the Portland on the other side of the country?! I’ll be there for three days in a couple weeks and have a list of about 25 “must try” restaurants – I desperately need your help narrowing it down, one gal cannot squeeze all of those into 3 days as hard as I might try! Side note: I have seen your chats, so trust me, I have done plenty of googling and could not find any recommendations from you. I’ve absolutely loved your local recommendations (most recently I’ve tried Tiger Fork, Supra, Compass Rose, and Hummingbird) so I would love to hear what you recommend. The culinary scene in Portland Maine has been really growing in the recent years, so if you haven’t been yet, it’s about time!

I broke bread with a fellow (national) critic last week and he told me he would love to move to Portland, as in Maine, just for the restaurant scene. I am overdue for a taste. But I hear good things about Eventide Oyster Co., Drifters Wife (a wine bar with American fare) and Tandem Coffee + Bakery, among other establishments.  Needless to say, you're in for a treat.

Based on your positive, updated review, I took my family to Momofuku this past weekend to celebrate my oldest son's 19th birthday. We had a wonderful meal--excellent kimchi, pork buns, smoked trout, pimento cheese, chicken. The service was friendly and attentive. Our leftovers were boxed up and left at the register for pick up on our way out the door. (Very nice touch, the coat check method of handling leftovers.) I know you think Milk Bar desserts are too sweet, and we were all underwhelmed by the Crack Pie, but I loved the cereal milk soft serve, and we all thought the complimentary birthday cake was delicious. (My 19yo doesn't even like cake, but he gobbled his up.) Anyway, I think Momofuku is a lovely restaurant.

The restaurant under chef Tae Strain is the restaurant we should have had in the first place. Count me a big fan. 

Tom, sticky question - If you notice a server (or patron) "slipping" something into a plate of food served to someone, how would you handle? We noticed this at a particular establishment and immediately told the person what we witnessed, but not sure what to do after that. For the record, we didn't know what the substance was, for all we know it could have been salt, some type of seasoning, etc. But it did raise eyebrows...

Without more information, I have no idea where to start with this question, although if I saw someone slipping a pill or powder into someone's drink, my gut reaction would be to question the doer of the deed and alert the unsuspecting consumer.

Hello Tom, My husband and I are on a summer quest for the best burger in the metro area. Would you give us a few suggestions - places to try.

Here's a list to get you started, from the Post's Going out Guide. (Two places have closed since the story was produced: Del Campo in the District and the Classics in Silver Spring.)

I was clicking on part 2 of Do's and Don'ts, when my eye fell on the first comment: "and don't call us Ma'am!" This is ridiculous. "Ma'am" is the female equivalent of "sir." Please don't insist on being called "Miss" -- that's just silly.

"Ma'am" would be a hard word to drop in the South in particular.

What's the best single dish (not overall menu or restaurant experience) you've had recently?

My idea of bliss: Pork croquettes garnished with fresno chilies and pickled red onions at the exuberant new Che Fico, an Italian taverna in San Francisco. The restaurant was carved from what was originally a stable built after the 1906 earthquake.

A multigenerational group of 13 (comprising teens, parents of teens, parents of parents of teens, and the birthday celebrant, an 80-year-old great-aunt) will be dining together in Alexandria on a Saturday in July. All of us live out of state, except the aunt, who lives in the Landmark area. I'm looking for a restaurant that can accommodate that size group, is comfortable for the hearing-aid wearers, and is festive and moderately fancy. Good service is key. Anything come to mind? Thanks!

I think your best bet is the breezy Hummingbird near the waterfront. The seafood-themed restaurant has a nice glass-enclosed room that could accommodate a group your size.

We are huge fans of Vedge in Philly. We drive up on a semi-regular basis over past several years and, of course, adore the food, but also the cozy, rather posh atmosphere, something the industry has lacked since forever, with maybe the exception of Candle 79 in New York. So, why we were thrilled to see some of our favorite dishes brought South to DC, and enthusiastic about the (new to us) items on the menu, we were surprised and maybe atiny bit disappointed in the surroundings. It just didn't have the same warm feel, and likely that was not what they were going for anyway, but I think if we have had the heads-up we would have lowered our expectations about a cozy evening dinner. Having said that, here's my question. Do you know if the exact same recipes were brought down from Philly to DC? Some of the items, namely the fondue, were amazingly delicious, but somewhat different than what we have had many times in Philadelphia. We were not disappointed, just wondering if they tweak them for different locations?

Fancy Radish isn't meant to completely channel Vedge, the more formal of the two meatless restaurants owned by chefs Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby in Philadelphia.

 

That said, the newcomer could use some wall art; FR is a bit spare at the moment.  The owners routinely tweak their food, although their classics, like the fondue and the stuffed avocado, shouldn't taste so dissimilar from how you've sampled them up north.

First year we will be celebrating the 4th in DC. Any suggestions for great rooftop restaurants to try?

"Great* rooftop dining? The most notable restaurant is Perry's in Adams Morgan. Not to take away from Perry's, but I think a lot of people are going to have the same idea. If I were you, I'd probably eat someplace first, then go to a bar under the stars.  Here are some picks from my colleague Fritz Hahn, our nightlife maven.

Tom, I have meetings at State Dept over lunch on Friday and am looking for solo dining options in Foggy Bottom--not too enthused about bowl options like Cava, but looking for something fresh, delicious, and easy on the wallet. Thoughts?

Bindaas, the very good Indian small plates source from Ashok Bajaj, is where you want to belly up to the bar or kitchen counter.

We are long-time fans of Komi and I'd like to give a shout out to the front of the house staff, who are without exception charming and both knowledgable and enthused about the food and wine. And it goes without saying that the dinners are processions of deliciousness and the wine pairings are generally on point. Plus the tip is now included which I think is a fine development; I wish more restaurants would go this route.

You're right: The $165 dinner, about a dozen courses long, includes a (well-deserved) pre-tax tip of 20 percent.

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Sorry to cut the discussion short, but I hope you understand. Again, the earlier you post questions and comments, the better chance you have of seeing them addressed here.

 

Until next week, be well and eat well.

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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