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

Jul 18, 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.

Hi Tom. Usually I am an admirer of your work, but today I've got a bone to pick with you, so to speak. You must be pleased that Frank Ruta and Aggie Chin have been asked to leave Mirabelle. You made no secret of your disdain for the quality of their cooking, and you continually disregarded the positive reviews of diners who ate at Mirabelle more frequently than you did. And you must also be pleased at the return of your pal Jennifer Knowles (after whose departure you completely rewrote your review of Mirabelle for reasons that you did not disclose to your readers). Congratulations -- you got what you wanted. And I fear that you will not publish this comment on your chat because you would prefer not to be called out about your friendship with Knowles. --A disappointed reader

No glee from me about the departure of the opening chef and pastry chef, whose previous work at the late Palena I greatly admired and whose restaurant was good enough to make it into my last fall dining guideI returned to Mirabelle in recent months for a look-see and found a much-changed .... everything, not to mention a dining room begging for more of an audience.

 

For the record, I'm cordial with Ms. Knowles (as I hope I am with everyone I cover), but we don't socialize. And I didn't "completely" rewrite my initial review of Mirabelle when she departed for Requin (although I felt compelled to address her exit, since she was responsible for the front of the house, and service was a highlight there). Not sure where you got that information -- or what axe you have to grind? But I'm all about transparency, which is why I'm addressing your post. 

 

Good morning, everyone. Happy Wednesday and thanks for joining me for another hour of restaurant talk. Earlier this morning, my official review of Kaliwa in the Wharf published online. Has anyone been? Thoughts? 

 

Let's rock and roll.

Did you see this in the Chicago Tribune today? Do you think you will ever follow suit? http://www.chicagotribune.com/dining/restaurants/ct-food-restaurant-critic-vettel-ends-anonymity-0718-story.html

Phil is a long-time pal of mine. I appreciate what he has to say in today's column -- and envy him to an extent. But I've worked so long and so hard to protect my identity, I would hate to just throw my face out there. If it happens by accident, so be it. But I don't plan on revealing my mug anytime soon. (A critic can change his mind, though!) 

 

It's been a newsy week in my world, what with  Michael Bauer, the critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, announcing his departure after (gulp) 32 years

Hi Tom, I will be hosting a dinner for 8-10 business colleagues in mid-August and would like to find a new place for dinner, on a Friday evening, that can easily accomodate us. One difficulty is that because it's for business, everyone needs separate checks. cost should be around $45-50 per person. There are one or two in the group with allergies. In the past we've done Zaytinia, Old Ebbitt's, NOPA, Filomena, the Georgetown Grill, Le Diplomat, and a few other places. Any ideas? Georgetown, Dupont, or Penn Quarter are preferred areas. Thanks-- We always enjoy your column and your advice and wish we could have dinner with you!

Let's start with restaurants that might be group-friendly, and I'll leave it to you to inquire about separate checks. I know the Italian-themed Centrolina in CityCenter has a room that could accommodate your colleagues, as does Convivial in Shaw, the Oval Room near the White House, Central Michel Richard downtown and 701 in Penn Quarter. 

Tom - I'm catching up with friends after ages and need a good DC lunch spot for Friday - somewhere central would be good as all coming from different directions. Thanks!

Cuisine preference? Budget? Neighborhood? Help me help you find the perfect spot with some specifics.

 

In the meantime, I'll throw a few suggestions your way: Bindaas for Indian small plates in Foggy Bottom, America Eats Tavern in Georgetown for crab cakes and other classics and Espita Mezcaleria in Shaw for thoughtful Mexican fare, tacos especially. 

Dear Tom, Just moved from Chicago to DC. I'm underwhelmed by the food and my wallet is taking a beating, though Bad Saint's half chicken was delicious and possibly the most expensive portion of chicken being served in the world. P&P was good but thought the whole time that I should have been eating at Eleven Madison Park for the same cash. Help me out..

For inspiration, allow me to introduce you to my colleague Tim Carman's $20 Diner column in the Weekend section and my recent reviews of deals on meals including the Tavern inside Rare Steak and Seafood downtown, Spark at Engine Company 12 in Bloomingdale and Unconventional Diner for updated comfort food near the convention center.  I *love* the scene in Chicago, but Washington brims with good food, too. 

Looking for a good spot for a relaxing, delicious bachelorette brunch for 10-12 ladies near Dupont. Mimosas and great eggs benedict are a plus. Thanks!

The place you want to book your peeps  is the Spanish-accented Boqueria on the corner of 18th and M streets, which showcases a bottomless brunch on the weekend -- huevos benedictions included. 

Hi Tom! Had a less than stellar start to my dinner at Kapnos in Bethesda. Had a reservation and was made to wait a little more than 20 minutes for our table. While we dutifully waited at the bar as instructed, we were cramped and had to stand around aimlessly due to a crowded restaurant. As the small tables in the bar area fit 2 or 3 people comfortably, the whole situation was a bit awkward. The manager took the time to tell us repeatedly (three times) that a table was finishing up but didn't take the initiative to push together vacant tables (which remained empty long after we finally sat) or see about finding another table. Someone in our party was pregnant so it left quite a bad taste in my mouth that they didn't seem to care much about our wait and that camping out on a bar stool might not be the most comfortable thing to do. It seemed like the restaurant was more interested in pushing us to buy drinks from the bar while we waited for a table than getting us a table we had reserved weeks earlier. Is this type of service/issue common? It irked me that after waiting more than 20 minutes Kapnos didn't take much of an initiative and just pushed us to order and pay for drinks...has customer service/common sense all but gone out the window?

The general rule is, restaurants and diners get a grace period of 15 minutes or so to seat and show up, respectively. No one wants to wait in a crowded bar for long; Kapnos Kouzina might consider adding a bench or some such near the entrance for patrons who might not be comfortable standing until their table is ready.  In the case of your party, the staff might have hustled to seat you if someone in the group mentioned a guest's pregnancy up front. Did anyone say anything?

Good Morning Tom, my husband and I are due with our first child in September. I'd like to go out for one last hurrah meal (well at least for now), before the baby comes. My husband doesn't eat pork or seafood, which eliminates a lot the restaurants that I've seen you raving about lately. We did Sfoglina few weeks ago (wonderful!). Any ideas in NW? (We're in Bethesda, but I don't have any hopes for a great recommendation there!). Rasika will be my fall back, as its one of our favorites. Thanks!!

Try something different for your last hurrah. I'm thinking the sweeping A Rake's Progress in the Line hotel might make for a memorable farewell-for-now to dining out as you prepare to have a child. Congrats, by the way. 

Tom, How is Requin doing without Michael Rafidi? Should I rethink a reservation there later this month? I also noticed the Fairfax location appears closed. Thanks.

I haven't returned to Requin since I reviewed it. Frankly, i've been too busy writing about all the new places that continue to open, just about everywhere. And given the controversy surrounding its owner, I'm not in a huge rush to take its temperature. 

You are not "hosting" if each person is paying his or her own check. You might be "organizing" a group dinner, but not hosting. This may seem a picky comment, but I am tired of people "hosting" birthday parties (for themselves!), showers, office dinners, etc., then expecting everyone to pay. Just thought I'd throw that out there. Happy Wednesday.

Feel better? ;)

Hi, Tom. If I like (okay, love) Carmine's and would like to try something similar but perhaps with smaller portions, where should I go?

Probably my favorite (updated) Italian-American experience in DC is All-Purpose Pizzeria in Shaw, which offers more than its name suggests and now has a snazzy branch on the waterfront.

Haven't gone out for Ethiopian since our son was born - 7 years! We now have an opportunity. What is the go-to place in the Silver Spring area these days?

It's been a few years since I've eaten there, but Bete has been my go-to spot for Ethiopian -- kitfo, minced tilapia, the vegetable combination platter -- in close-in Maryland.

You choose to live in a crowded metropolis. You go to a popular restaurant. Why should the fact of a simple wait (the District is populous) yield free drinks? And if its for the pregnant guest, well, she can't/shouldn't drink, so who's to benefit here? People seem to want free for anything

I didn't get the sense the poster was determined to get free drinks. It sounded more like the party just wanted the table they had reserved. But after 20 minutes, it would have been classy of KK to extend the offer of gratis beverages, in part for the diners' discomfort in a packed bar.

Come on people- women all the world are pregnant and are working in factories, fields, and mines. Being pregnant is all that- tired of the "I am so special attitude" these days.

I'm going to duck after I post this .

My girlfriend and I are looking for a place to celebrate our anniversary. We've done a lot of the classics (Le Dip, Rasika) and were looking to try a new, nice place. Any suggestions? (no shellfish!)

If you want to continue your winning streak, look to toast one another at Chloe near the Navy Hard (check out the copia crudo with electric Asian accents) or Poca Madre, the yet-to-be-reviewed upscale Mexican restaurant on I St. NW (formerly Del Campo).

Hi Tom - Over the years this question has been always in the back of my mind - why is shrimp served with the tail on in dishes that are not intended to be eaten by hand? I totally get that you need the tail when you are dipping in cocktail sauce but why is it in my pasta?

I addressed the issue in an Ask Tom round-up of reader questions a year ago. Here's what chefs shared: 

 

Tails are left on for a variety of reasons, some having to do with aesthetics; shrimp look better and larger with their ends on, say defenders of the practice. In the case of cocktail shrimp presented in a bowl or platter, the tails make good handles. 

 

Tails also add texture and flavor to a dish, says John Critchley, executive chef of the recently reviewed Siren in Washington. The decision to remove tails or leave them on can depend on how the shrimp is prepared. "We leave the shell at the end of the tail to protect the cooking of this narrow part that cooks faster than the thicker part close to the head, especially when they are grilled or seared," says Fabio Trabocchi, whose restaurants include the seafood-themed Del Mar in the District Wharf and Fiola Marein Georgetown. "When we poach shrimp in oil, however, this is not necessary." The chef adds, "We often leave the entire shell on for a pristine type of prawn, when it is baked in salt or poached. The shell is to be peeled at the table, and our guests should use their fingers to peel them, without feeling uncomfortable." As for any mess at his restaurants, warm towels follow the seafood. 

Both chefs say they have no problem removing shells for a guest who doesn't want to deal with them. "Ideally," says Trabocchi, "they would make their server aware of their preference when the order is placed." Bottom line, says Critchley, "we don't want them to have to work for anything."

 

 

Any plans to interview for the SF Chron job?

I already have one of the best jobs, at one of the best media companies, in the world.

Our party of four had a reservation this weekend at a fine restaurant near Nats Park for my sister's birthday dinner. She decided to leave her purse at her hotel a couple of blocks away to be stress-free for the evening (no cell phone, no wallet since she was being treated to dinner). As we chatted with the server about the menu, he inquired about drink orders, then added that he would be happy to serve us if we had IDs. We laughed--thinking he was joking--and pointed to the birthday girl, who did not have ID. He repeated quite seriously that he could not serve anyone who did not present an ID, so we left the restaurant and got dinner and drinks next door with no questions. The punchline: the youngest person in our party was 60 years old! I did call and talk to the restaurant manager a couple of days later, and he said they were told the liquor authorities were alleged to be lurking because of the All Star Weekend. I contend that the risk of a liquor authority walking up to a table of 60-somethings and asking if they presented ID before being served alcohol was so near zero as to be laughable. But just be aware: you really should carry an ID with you when you go out!

So sorry your plans got changed, but I also sympathize with the restaurant. No one wants to lose its license to pour booze. Let this be a lesson to diners of all ages to carry identification.

I noticed that you frequently get questions about where to eat in Richmond, and I know in the past that you have recommended other publications/critics in other cities - so, I wanted to offer a source here. Richmond Magazine always has a food section, as well as issues devoted to the restaurant scene here ( Best New Restaurant, Best Burgers, etc.) They have an online presence. They have more than one critic, so I'm not recommending any particular person, just the mag for up to date info on what is happening here. NO, I do not work for them. I know you were here 2 years ago, and not discounting your work, but this city has an ever-changing, vibrant restaurant scene. Two years was a long time ago.

Yes it was and thanks for writing.

 

Here's the link to Richmond Magazine, which includes reviews by a food lover whose name will be very familiar.

Hi Tom, I was invited to the All Star game by a business contact and after I had left the house was told that the crew was meeting at Del Mar for pre-game food/drinks. Cool. The issue was I was already dressed in my sleeveless shirt on account of the humidity etc. I thought about it, but in my neighborhood a sleeveless shirt on a summer night is totally cool, I'm fashion forward, I thought I looked good, gave it only a small thought, and thought whatever. When I walked in, the hostess said, "So you know for next time, we usually don't allow sleeveless shirts or sporting wear." I said, "Cool, I didn't know, I'm joining a party at the bar. So no sleeveless shirts for men, right?" She said, "That's correct." I said that because there were a number of women wearing sleeveless shirts withing eyesight, as well as a number of men wearing baseball jerseys so I wanted to get clarification/represent my disenchantment with the conversation. All cool. I sat with my the Technology salesperson that invited me and a few other area tech pros for drinks/apps at the bar. 30 minutes in, after our party had ordered a number of drinks/apps/paella/etc. the hostess returned to inform me that there was a misunderstanding and that she would prefer if I leave the premise. I said, "ok, I'm not feeling welcome right now so I'm happy to leave." The hostess: "I don't want to make you feel unwelcome, Sir." Me: "Well you're asking me to leave." One of the pros that I was with asked if we could have 15 more minutes, the hostess acquiesced. At that point I informed my party that I would be waiting outside and take your time. We met after and went on to have a great night no matter the scuffle. My deal is...why let me in, then to kick me out? I get that I was under dressed but I would prefer that you not let me in to begin with rather than making this scene in front of colleagues. Regardless...I was cool chillin outside. Whattsup Fabio Trabocchi?

Because this was submitted early (thank you, poster) I was able to reach out to the restaurant for a response. Here's what I received earlier today from a spokeswoman:

 

"To enhance the experience of all our guests and to deliver on the expectation of a refined dining experience at our restaurant, we ask guests to respect our dress code.  Enforcing a dress code is a delicate matter; we must maintain the atmosphere of the restaurant without sacrificing our dedication to hospitality for every guest that walks through our doors.  Bottom line: we should have handled this situation better, and we greatly regret having inconvenienced the guest and made him feel uncomfortable.  We appreciate this feedback as it provides a training opportunity for our team that will help us avoid such missteps in the future.

 

We would appreciate the opportunity to contact the guest directly to convey our sincere apologies and to invite him back.

 

Additionally, we wanted to share with you the manager’s report as background/the other side of the story, but we would appreciate if you would keep the details and names out of it/off the record."

 

Tom here. Proof that there are always two or more sides to a story, from Del Mar's guest relations log:

 

Guest arrived to the restaurant out of dress code wearing shorts, sleeveless tank top, and sneakers. He was informed my upon arrival by (name withheld) of the dress code and was told that he could greet his friends but ultimately had to leave because of his attire. He agreed and stated that he would leave within 15 minutes as he just wanted to say hi to his friends who initially had a reservation, then decided to eat in the bar. He stayed in the bar and ordered a drink which we accommodated. Guest tried to order another drink after 25 minutes, at this time (name withheld) addressed him politely to remind him of there previous conversation regarding his attire. Guest became slightly upset stating that he would leave and felt uncomfortable. Guest stated there were other guests in the restaurant wearing tanks tops and athletic wear but if we wanted him to leave he would go. I politely reminded him of our initial conversation and assured him that my intent was not to attack him , simply upholding the standards of our original conversation. The guest who made the reservation  was very apologetic regarding his friend and his conduct. Guest proceeded to leave 5 minutes after.

 

 

 


 

Trust the restaurant when they tell you that liquor authorities may be stop by - they will. I used to volunteer at the alcohol both at my church's summer festival. That same church was fined in the past because someone in the alcohol booth failed to ID someone (despite that person being way over 21 yrs old). We had to turn down elderly folks with a cane because they didn't have their ID - yes it was ridiculous, but losing one's liquor license is worse.

Uh huh

Hi Tom! While you are on the topic of what are reasonable expectations of restaurants by pregnant people, I thought I'd throw in a question of my own. My husband and I went to a restaurant in Philadelphia that people (you included!) have been raving about for their delicious food and drinks. I am pregnant, and since I couldn’t have anything from their extensive cocktail list, I asked the waitress if they could make anything non-alcoholic for me. She told me I could have tea or one of their sodas. I was really surprised and annoyed that a nice restaurant that has so many fancy cocktails couldn’t come up with a single mocktail! The food was great, but sipping on tea while everyone else enjoyed amazing cocktails left me unimpressed. Am I being unreasonable, or should restaurants with extensive cocktail lists be more accommodating to their customers who don’t drink alcohol? p.s. To the "I'm so special" person - it's not that I think I'm special for being pregnant; lots of people don't drink alcohol for other reasons too, and I would have expected high-end restaurants to be more sympathetic to that!

In 2018, it's simply inexcusable for a serious restaurant not to offer interesting, non-alcoholic beverages that don't necessarily involve tea or soda.

Your support for id-ing seniors is asinine. Clearly, there is not much common sense left in America these days.

You think??

I don't know if it helps, but when I was pregnant I often requested the same and in my experience you want to talk to the bartender. Bartenders were usually happy to accommodate me/ show off their skills. But the waiters tended to just refer me to the menu, understandable since they don't want to volunteer something for someone else, or necessarily even know what is available behind the bar.

Good advice. I can't imagine a good bar tender turning down a chance to show off her skill and concern with regard to mocktails.

Hey Tom! I am a self-proclaimed hummus addict. So far, my favorite hummus dish in the district is at Zaytinya. Do you have any more recommendations?

Have you tried the superlative dip at Sababa, the city's youthful Middle Eastern restaurant in Cleveland Park? Bliss.

Hi Tom - I am also pregnant and have made dinning decisions based on the presence of mocktails or specialty lemonades/sodas. I've been surprised at how much it improves my dining experience to have a special drink that's refreshing and interesting - just like a nice cocktail or glass of wine. Standouts include Alta Strada, Bindass in Cleveland Park, and Sfoglina. Buena Vida was also accommodating - $25 for their brunch for pregnant women because the $35 includes drinks.

A fount of information! Thank you.

Thank you for your time. Wednesdays aren't the same when you're not around

Mom, I'll call you at 12:03

I think all critics should publish a generic crank complaint letter that says some variant of "I don't know what (show/concert/restaurant) he was at but it was not the same as me. The (crowd/other diners) loved it!" I mean why would I want an expert to give me a review when "everyone" says otherwise? Thanks for giving us your critical reviews (meaning both good and bad). Most of us appreciate ite!

Mom, I said I'll call you in a minute ... (thank you)

What is your interaction like with other parts of the paper? Do you interact much with the reporters? Other feature writers or opinion writers?

Among my best friends (and semi-regular dining companions) at the Post are Jura Koncius, whose Rolodex I'd love to have; the wise and wonderful  TV critic Hank Stuever;  media critic Margaret Sullivan; and Lynda Robinson, one of the most beloved and hard-working editors in the building.

 

That's a wrap for today. Let's meet again next week for more dish and discussion. Thanks for sharing your time with me.

 

P.S. The terrific Laura Hayes of the Washington City Paper informs me that Espita, mentioned above, no longer serves lunch. Gracias, Laura!

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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