The Washington Post

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

Jun 21, 2017

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, What should diners do when the entree for one person in the party is taking a long time to arrive and the rest of the table has been served? I was always taught to wait until everyone is served before I begin eating, but what if that wait stretches on and on? How long should you wait before digging in? How long before flagging down a manager? What's the balance between politeness and having to either eat cold food or send the rest of the table's food back to be reheated, thus starting the mismatched timing again? This seems to happen a lot with big parties, and usually the person who's waiting tells everyone to start eating. If it's a few minutes, no big deal. But last night at dinner with my husband, my entree came 20 minutes after his. FWIW, I urged hubby to go ahead and start, he kindly shared some of his dinner with me, we asked the server for an update -- but he was finished before my entree arrived. What should we have done differently?

A minute can feel like forever when you're holding a yoga pose or waiting for an entree after everyone else at the table has been served.  Any delay should be accompanied by an apology and an estimated arrival time from the server. A delay of more than a few minutes should be followed by the delivery of a light snack or some such to bridge the gap and encourage fellow diners to dig in.  (Side note: My gripe of  late has been entrees served at the same time as appetizers.)

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for another hour of restaurant talk.

 

My Sunday review appeared online earlier this morning. I was tickled to give three stars, an "excellent" rating, to Arroz in the Marriott Marquis in Washington. Has anyone else here been to the latest from chef Mike Isabella? I'd love to hear your thoughts.  Today's First Bite, in the Food section, shines a light on the new Mola in Mount Pleasant, a charming Spanish eatery.

 

Let's rock and roll. What's on your mind today?

The noise in most of the restaurants I have been visiting is so loud that seriously raised voices are required for conversation. My friend claims restaurateurs are investing significant sums of money on ambience and deliberately create this effect (as opposed to installing noise muffling materials) because it imparts a liveliness to the scene. Is this a fact?

I know of no restaurant that sets out thinking, "Let's make this the noisiest dining room we possibly can."

 

On the other hand, it's pretty obvious that an abundance of concrete floors, brick walls, bare tables and reclaimed wood -- the backdrop for a lot of  eating establishments -- makes for a clamorous experience once diners are added to the equation.  

 

Sound-proofing costs money, and some restaurateurs would rather spend the dough on, say, an extra line cook than on a feature no one can see (but from which everyone can benefit). 

Hi Tom! My new fiance and I are looking for a restaurant or bar to hold our wedding reception next spring - we're estimating around 60 people, and great food and a fairly relaxed feel are our top priorities (2941 looks gorgeous but soooo formal!). The problem is that a lot of the places I'm seeing have private spaces for 20-40 people, or you can buy out the restaurant for 100+. Can you think of anywhere that's wheelchair accessible that would comfortably accommodate the group? We're not picky about location at this point. Our preferences would be buffet or heavy appetizers, although we'd consider a served, sit-down meal as well. Thank you!

If there's a restaurant out there that can accommodate a group this size, please chime in before noon today.

...Do you have any guilty "cooling off" pleasures that restaurants serve this time of year? (i.e. desserts like popsicles, cold items, drinks, gazpacho, etc.)

I love gazpacho this time of year. One of the best bowls at the moment is found at Equinox downtown, where chef Todd Gray incorporates pineapple and Thai basil into a base of yellow tomatoes.  My spoon scraped the dish clean last week.

 

Next!

Hi Tom! I'm attending a play in Penn Quarter next week and trying to decide where to have dinner before the show. I'll be a solo diner, so somewhere with a bar could be nice. I know many places in the area have a set Pre-theatre menu, but I'm open to any place.

I love eating at the bar of the colorful Jaleo in Penn Quarter, which offers a three-course dinner menu (5 p.m. to 6;#0 p.m.) for $30. My picks would be the gazpacho followed by garlic shrimp and flan topped with orange espuma, or foam. 

Re: tables too close. At Le Diplomate, we were wedged in a spot where the tables were so close, servers could not really get between chairs. They tried, and ended up sloshing sauce on my husband's head. Apologies, realized they would need to take a longer route around, etc. It wasn't until the end of the meal that we realized the sauce had also splattered all down the arm of my never been worn before top. (Sauce came out in dry cleaning, which they did offer to pay for; now I'm reminded to send them that receipt!)

In case you missed it, the reader is referencing my recent Critic's Notebook on tightly-packed dining rooms.

We recently had a 3 course, 2 hour lunch at a small bistro in the area. We were meeting lifelong friends who we had not seen for over a month. We had a lot to catch up on. We appreciate friendly, and are not adverse to "familiar", but our waiter was utterly intrusive -- providing unsolicited lectures on wine, inserting himself into our discussion of art, sharing photos of the chef's art, along with unrelated stories of the children. He easily ate into half of our time together. What is the polite, appropriate response?

The second time the waiter launched into one of his spiels, you could have said, "We're with dear friends and we have a lot to catch up on. If we need anything ahead of the check, we'll be sure to ask."  

Hi, Tom. I'm curious about your thoughts on why Cleveland Park is struggling so much these days restaurant-wise. After the blight of losing Palena, Dino and 4Ps, the neighborhood was looking up with Bindaas, a new chef at Ripple and Dolan (although frankly, I was disappointed in Dolan). However, I just read that Ripple and Nam-Viet are both closing this weekend. Given that Palena is still vacant and Dino was converted to a 7-Eleven, it seems times continue to be tough food-wise for this area. I'm surprised, given that it's still a very popular neighborhood from a real-estate perspective. Certainly the locals must want good food.

Nam Viet is closing, too? That's news to me.

 

I think the cost of doing business in Cleveland Park (landlords wanting too much money)  is part of the reason why some places have shuttered. But Cleveland Park also has stiff competition in the form of  restaurant-rich Shaw and 14th St. NW. 

 

P.S. You didn't mention one of CL's success stories, so I will: Indique for good Indian.

This is how appearing on TV can also be a problem. I was so turned off by his behavior on Top Chef that I haven't been able to make myself frequent his restaurants.

Okay, but do yourself a favor and forget he owns Arroz.

Hey, Tom - Thanks for your input re places near the zoo for brunch. We first tried for Ardeo but unfortunately we didn't get to the site fast enough & they were booked solid. We settled on 'Open City' - at Calvert & Connecticut - & had a great time. Husband had the traditional eggs, bacon, pancakes fare, our daughter went with a great looking 'grain bowl' & I had a killer yogurt/granola parfait (handmade by our waiter, I later learned). It was quite nice. They were busy, but attentive & we never felt rushed. We had time afterward for a stroll thru the zoo - love the big cats! We enjoy DC & always appreciate your input. Cheers from the 'burbs!

Thanks for the feedback. Glad Open City worked out for you.

What do you think of food recommendations from a wait person? I sometimes worry that they're intentionally choosing the most expensive item on the menu or a plate that needs to be moved. Plus, the wait person may have a different palate than me.

Sure, there are some servers who will try to steer you in the most expensive direction, but there are plenty more who would rather you get something close to your taste preferences. I take most seriously recommendations from servers who can describe dishes that I can more or less taste as they're listing ingredients and how they're prepared. 

This may be too proletarian a question for this chat, but what the heck. I've noticed recently that when I get a salad at a fast-casual place, or make my own bowl at Beefsteak (which I really like), the restaurant will cram a lot of stuff into the bowl, but all of the components will be segregated and compartmentalized. So, for example, the broccoli will be in one corner, and the carrots will be in another, and bell pepper will be in another, and so forth. And while I like getting lots of stuff, the components don't get mixed, because it's all crammed in tight, and it's hard to mix them myself without spilling stuff out of the bowl. I'd like to get a mixture of stuff with each forkful, instead of just eating all of the broccoli, and then eating all of the carrots, and then all of the bell pepper, and so forth. So consider this my plea to such restaurants: Mix everything up before giving us the bowl. Thanks.

No question is too small for us! Consider your plea passed along. (And I agree with you, by the way.)

Dear Tom, My family and I are regulars at Bread Furst and we LOVE everything about it except for the awful ordering experience, which is chaos. We went on Sunday morning to pick up some treats for Father's Day, and within a minute or two of placing our order at the rear counter, three additional employees asked if they could take our order. Besides that, we couldn't place our entire order at once because we hadn't yet seen what was available at the front register. And the person who took our partial order had to walk to the front anyway to see if there was a bialy left. After we made it through the line (passing by the pickup counter jammed with people collecting food and coffee) we made it to the front register, where the employee helping us couldn't answer basic questions about some of the items on display (e.g. what type of filling is in the rugelach?). There were different varieties of donuts for sale, but you wouldn't know it because they weren't labeled. Then we arrived at the register where we had to recite everything in our large order to the cashier (what if we had forgotten something?). All of this after straining to communicate with a half-dozen different staffers in the noisy atmosphere and feeling the push to keep the line moving. I'm stressed again just thinking about it! I write all of this with great affection for Bread Furst, as a plea for Mr. Furstenberg and Co. to please make the ordering experience better for customers!

I totally sympathize with you. Been there, done that.  Bread Furst is one of the crummiest (pun intended!) ordering experiences in town. The bakery really needs to get its act together on that front.  

 

Patience is rewarded, I have to say;  not for nothing did owner Mark Furstenberg win the a coveted James Beard award this spring for Outstanding Baker

 

I reached out to the owner (a long-time friend of mine) for comment and received this note:

 

"It is chaotic at Bread Furst on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  I am sympathetic to the critic.  I know that people want to come to us at those times, a lot of people.  I am awfully glad they do.
 But at those times we are trying to do two things at once — serve a lot of Washingtonians who are uniquely intolerant about waiting in line and offer them a large number of choices.  And they of course want to look at the choices and ask questions about them.  That takes time.
 We overstaff on Saturdays and Sundays so that people can be served quickly and we try to move fast because that’s what our customers want.  We ought not to badger customers by asking repeatedly whether they have been served.  I am afraid that we are cowed by the memory of the faces of customers we occasionally overlook and so we overreact.
 There is no excuse for our failing to label.  There is no excuse for our staff being unable to describe or answer questions.    We’ll continue to work on our sales skills but we are selling 600 item an hour on Saturday and Sunday mornings and I am afraid that the experience is going to continue to be chaotic."

 

Hey Tom - you posted my scathing screed on the baffling incompetence of the Kingbird staff and management. This one isn't as bad, but tragicomic levels of service ineptitude nonetheless. Father's Day dinner at Marcon Larder and I should have known from the deer-in-the-headlights of the new hostess that we were in for a rough ride. She just stood there with menus in her hand as all 4 of us were ready to be seated - I actually had to tell her that we would be happy to go to our seat. Waiter was SLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW on the draw all night. Slow to arrive, slow to return, super slow with drinks, slow to follow up and was just a shade above useless. Why didn't I talk to the manager? Because she was also waiting tables before shifting to oversee food orders coming out. You know that is a small-ish place and was hardly overwhelmed. And yet our food came out long after I had been ready and my lobster grits were barely lukewarm. And the portions of the snapper my wife ordered was so minuscule that she actually ordered mac & cheese basically as dessert just to get full. The whole staff appeared to be slow, semi-confused, apathetic and just going through the motions. I really believe saying anything to the manager would have gone in one ear and out the other. But perhaps a good public shaming will get the attention of ownership. Stick beats carrot in occasions like this. Looking forward to checking our Salt Line that you gave high praise to!

You write so vividly, I can see all the above transpiring in my mind. Not a pretty picture.  Let's hope the owners of  Macon Bistro & Larder see this and make some appropriate changes.

Many years ago, an old friend of mine who had moved out of Washington came to town and we went to dinner at Taberna del Alabardero. Unbeknownst to us, the restaurant was featuring a group of singers from Spain, who strolled around the restaurant visiting tables. I think they were a university group or something similar. My friend had just told me that her husband had been diagnosed with a fatal disease, and at that moment, the group set itself up by our table and starting singing a rousing song (accompanied by acoustic guitar). I gave them $20 and told them, politely, to go sing somewhere else Had we known there were going to be performers that evening, we would have chosen another location for our meal.

Oh my.  In a situation like this, had you known where the conversation might go, you could have requested a more private section of the restaurant. (Good for you dismissing the singers with a tip. It showed thought.)

I don't know the guy, and he may be a jerk or an angel, but keep in mind that TV producers heavily edit those "reality" shows and love to create villains because that's what keeps people tuning in. We all want to be high-minded and say we are watching for the cooking, but there's nothing like conflict to drive a story.

Ain't it the truth.

Tom--Like the earlier post-er, I was also a Mike Isabella skeptic, and never went to any of his restauratns. But Arroz made me a believer; he selected a fine chef and did his homework well. I will say that I found some of the tapa-size dishes to be a bit pricey for what one gets (as well as some of the drinks), but those bombas are, well, the bomb. The veggie bomba was more than enough for two (and I hear you can request half-portions). I only wish you had given a bit more attention to the desserts, which were maybe the next best part of our meal; they may seem pricey, also, but they are pretty substantial. Overall, a really fine place.

Thanks for weighing in on the matter. I didn't know Mike had so many skeptics!

Leave room enough in the bowl to mix up the ingredients! Otherwise I feel like a child who doesn't want any one food to touch another.

You made me laugh there. Thanks.

What is the best new D.C. Restaurant for foodies? Price is no object.

It really depends on your taste. Here's my Top 10 "best new" list from my recent spring dining guide. My No. 1 spot went to Mirabelle, where former White House chef Frank Ruta heads the kitchen.

My twins are turning 21 next month and we're looking for a fun and special place for dinner that won't break the bank. One vegetarian among us. Being able to make a reservation is a must. We've previously enjoyed Kapnos, Zatinya, and Rasika. Anywhere in DC is fine, as would be close-in Maryland or Virginia. Thank you!

To the rescue: The aforementioned Arroz by Mike Isabella, where the meatless prizes include delicious "burnt" eggplant and a seasonal vegetable bomba, or rice casserole, and "fun" pretty much sums up the service and ambiance.

A few weeks ago I asked for some recommendations for a celebratory meal in Atlanta, and I was able to make reservations at one of them: Cooks and Soldiers. My brother and I had a fantastic meal! I always appreciate how responsive you and the other readers are with recommendations. I haven't been disappointed yet! Thanks a bunch, Tom, and to the person that helped us to have a great evening!

Take a bow, Whoever Suggested Cooks and Soldiers! What I like so much about this forum is how much sharing goes on, and how much we learn from one another.

Tom, Went to Garrisons tonight on the Hill for the third or fourth time. To our surprise terrible service overall, but the last straw was when I ordered my steak well done, a manager came over to tell me I had to order something else because they wouldn't cook it beyond medium rare. We got up and left mid meal. Was I wrong? Patrons know, after a lifetime of eating, how they like their food cooked. Thought this was patronizing and arrogant, and particularly surprising because the restaurant was more or less empty. Thx.

I'm only getting one side of the story here, but I'm a little surprised the kitchen wouldn't accommodate your request. Then again, I'm the guy who criticized POTUS for asking for the same wherever he goes, which, thus far in DC, has only been to BLT Prime -- a restaurant he owns.

Hi Tom! Love your chats. Going to St. Louis for a long weekend and would love any recommendations you have. I'm up for any cuisine and not a picky eater (though my husband wouldn't do small plates as his first choice - but he would if you recommended it). Thanks!

It's been six years since my last trip there, so I'm going to point you in the direction of my food pal at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Ian Froeb, whose Top 100 list can be found here. (I can vouch for Farmhaus!)

You guys, there is NOTHING real about reality TV shows. They may not be as scripted as other shows, but they aren't real any more than margarine is real butter.

So I've heard. I don't watch any of the cooking shows.

Went last Friday and loved it- I think of it as a great alternative to Le Diplomate if crowds and noise are deterrents. I'd admit that the dishes vary between excellent (crab with tarragon) and a little boring (thick cut potatoes that are really just french fries), but the good dishes really stood out! Also loved the unique cocktail menu and warm service. Overall I consider it a hidden gem, especially for the neighborhood. Thanks for your review from a couple months ago.

Hey Tom, question from a restaurant employee. Considering you chose to eat at a place multiple times because writing a review, rightfully so, don't you think it is our duty to recognize you in some capacity if you have dined at the establishment more then just once in a month. In my restaurant we pride ourselves on recognizing repeat guests even if the name is from the year prior and it was a birthday or some other annual event or if its someone who eats often because they live in the area. I know the anonymity of your visits helps keep the review unbiased but if we see you more then once in a few months I think we have some duty to welcome you back and recognize who you are. In our line of work we work hard to recognize everyone and show them a personalized experience. we do more research then a jealous EX in most cases.

As long as restaurants do that for everyone, I have no problem with it. Thanks for posting the question.

I would recommend Roofer's Union. Relaxed vibe, nice space and you can rent out 2nd and or 3rd floor. I attended a wedding there recently.

Interesting! Thanks for making the suggestion.

What do you think of Russia House? It was recommended to us by a friend who just went there and had a great meal at a reasonable price, but I don't ever see any reviews by you.

I last ate there probably three years ago or so and felt it was more of a drinking place than an eating establishment. Nothing I ordered encouraged me to return, in other words.

Adding to this storyline, I met a good friend for lunch the day after she got engaged. As we were ordering drinks the waitress heard us chatting about her recent engagement and stopped everything, sat down at the table, and demanded to hear the whole story, telling us that she "LOVED engagements!" Well, I hadn't even heard the story yet! I was looking forward to getting all the details from my friend and spending a leisurely lunch getting excited about wedding planning. Instead my friend had to give the quick story to the waitress first because she would not leave! It was a very odd situation.

That.Is.So.Weird.

I agree with the restaurant because the problem is fools who order their steaks well done will cry and moan about how small their 12oz Ny strip now is. Back in the day when I sued to work and cook in restaurants we used to put aside the worst cuts for the folks who wanted their steak cooked well done. Country of origin and age play a part in this. My girlfriend is from Panama and over the years she has progressed from Well Done to Medium. All has to with food safety.

My former Brazilian in-laws always ate their beef that way, too. And yes, I've also heard about chefs who "save" lesser cuts for diners who request steaks well-done.

Good Morning, My granddaughter just graduated from UVA and I want to meet her in downtown DC for celebration lunch on Monday, July 3rd. She is a vegetarian (loves Asian as well) and whatever I’m eating at the time is my favorite food! I need for it to be near a Metro station since she is coming from Virginia, and I’m coming from Maryland and it’s too hard to find parking downtown. Any good suggestions would be much appreciated.

Try China Chilcano in Penn Quarter, the improved-since-my-intial-review Peruvian-Asian restaurant from celebrity chef Jose Andres. The setting is appropriately festive and the meatless dishes span wok-charred snow peas, skewered shiitake mushrooms and cilantro dumplings.

I'm thinking of taking a quick trip to New York the upcoming extended weekend, probably staying in Brooklyn but not sure yet. Will likely be there for about 24 hours. Any can't miss suggestions for a food lover travelling solo?

Good timing: I just got back from 10 or so meals in the Big Apple (none in Brooklyn, however). The highlights of the trip included  breakfast at the new ABCV, where I spied the owner himself, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, dining; drinks at  The Campbell Apartment, tucked away in Grand Central Terminal; a pre-theater lunch at the Great Northern Food Hall and dinner at the reborn Union Square Cafe by Danny Meyer

 

As for Brooklyn, which I included in my 2015 survey of New York, be sure to find time for a drink and some oysters at the dreamy Maison Premiere and dinner (either pizza or pasta) at the venerable Franny's.

Yes, they are edited and molded into story lines, but those things accomplish what they set out to do-- influence how viewers like/dislike certain characters based on the behavior they show in the final product. It is a risk of appearing on one of them that if you go on to pursue other ventures under that name and using those appearances as part of your bona fides, you have to live with both the good and the bad that comes with. The number of chefs who have put me off trying their restaurants due to how they come across on tv is much longer than the list of ones who have made me seek them out. Thankfully since cutting the cable cord I am not tempted to hate-watch reality tv anymore. :)

Lots to ponder therein. Thanks for taking the time to write.

 

I just wish more chefs (young ones in particular) focused on good cooking than on becoming famous. There are plenty of role models -- chefs who Do The Work and don't need to be on TV to achieve renown.  See: Tarver King, among other class acts.

Hi Tom, I live in St. Louis, and love reading your columns and chats. Farmhaus is still great! Pastaria and Juniper are a couple other favorites. For fun St. Louis tradition get a concrete at Ted Drewes.

Great to have a local weigh in. Thank you.

My natural frugality keeps me from going back. We went once years ago and had a lovely evening and a good dinner, but I couldn't really tell you what we ate nor did I think it was head and shoulders above anything I'd ever experienced. but should we go back? And stay in the town?

Go back. The Inn is worth the price of admission. I wouldn't stay over there, though, not if I was personally paying for the room (which is more expensive than the meal).

Really disappointed in that answer from Mark Furstenberg. I love good bread, but that attitude is not making me want to go there. Blaming the customers for your staff's sloppiness is not a good philosophy.

(Silence.)

Spoken like a true New Yorker.

Mark is from Charm City.

I live in the neighborhood and go there far more often than my bank account would like. What Mark Furstenberg didn't point out in his response is that many people in line are on their phones, chatting with friends and not paying attention. So then the staff struggle to get people to focus on their order. Their setup is not ideal - no argument there but it is not exclusively the fault of the staff or the layout. Patrons should remember that there are people in line behind them and focus accordingly.

Fair enough, and thanks for posting.

While a TV appearance may come back to bite you, it does wonders when looking for investors to launch your restaurants. That's true of a lot of them, including Isabella.

And a certain youngin' who opened and shuttered a certain dining destination not long ago.

I can not recommend Talde highly enough for brunch and a walk in prospect park afterwards or a great dinner. Try to snag a booth with some friends if you can. The Vanderbilt is great in Prospect Heights, and Ample Hills Creamery has the best ice cream in the 5 boroughs.

And just as I'm poised to sign off! Thanks.

There was a Western-themed steakhouse outside of Scottsdale, AZ (don't remember the name) where, if you ordered a steak Well Done, would first bring out an old leather cowboy boot on a plate. After everyone stopped laughing they would then bring out the well done steak. Just their way of lightly commenting on the choice.

Ouch. And ... FUNNY.

Lots of affordable B&Bs within walking distance of the Inn. We loved the Gay Street Inn.

Yep. I've heard good things about it, too.

Also to note, that pregnant women are often advised to order cuts of meat well done or medium-well. So there could be mitigating circumstances for ordering something well done - surprised a restaurant was so judgmental!

If, in fact, we are getting the complete story.  I didn't have time to reach out to Garrison for a response.

We just went for dinner a couple months ago, and had a lovely stay at Foster Harris House. Five minute walk from the Inn, and a much cheaper price (amazing breakfast too).

Thanks for the idea.

Furstenberg's response didn't address the underlying issue, which is that there is no clear system in place there for ordering. It looks like you are supposed to order in the back and pay in the front. But as the poster mentioned, there is stuff only on view in the front, so you can miss that when you follow the rules and order in the back. Also, people jump ahead and order in the front, because it isn't clear where they are supposed to be ordering. More staff and overly attentive staff won't solve the problem of a chaotic and confusing layout and system. That is what needs to be addressed.

And on that note, I bid you all a lovely, line-free day wherever work or play take you.  Let's do this again next week, same time.

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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