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

Jul 19, 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.

Hi Tom, My best friend is coming into town with his boyfriend and we want to go out with our significant others for a night out - he loves Old Town and has requested any place that is new/cool/trendy. He can't eat dairy, but we both love all styles of food! Any ideas?

Thanks to the recent debut of Hummingbird, a seafood-themed dining room within the Hotel Indigo, I do!  The clean-lined waterfront restaurant, with a concise menu by Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve, offers crab cakes, grilled octopus, roast chicken and whole grilled fish, among other lures.

 

Happy (humid) Wednesday, everyone. I can't think of another restaurant that feels more like a (beach) vacation than the new Millie's in Spring Valley, the subject of my review in the Sunday Magazine this week.

 

The restaurant, based on the owners' establishment of the same name in Nantucket, is pulling in crowds with its interesting menu, solid cocktails, nautical look and (outdoor) ice cream window. I highly recommend the place for large groups and young families in particular,

 

Thanks for joining me for another hour of restaurant talk. What's on your mind? 

Scuttlebutt on Don Rockwell site has been that Afghan Bistro is coming to Macarthur Blvd. That would be great. But the proposed address supposedly is that of Bistroquet. I'd love to gain a close-by Afghan Bistro, but it would be a shame to lose Bistroquet (ah, the escargot and frites). I wonder if the new address is actually the place across the street, where Sur La Place was. Any ideas?

Great things are in store for 5100 Macarthur Boulevard,  the site of the now-dark Bistroquet: Virginia restaurateur Omar Masroor tells me wants to bring Afghan food to "the next level" with Bistro Aracosia, a reference to the long-ago name for Afghanistan.

 

The 100-seat establishment will unfold in two dining rooms reflective of Afghanistan's "warrior-poet past," meaning one part will pay tribute to written romance, another room will showcase the country's early and powerful kings, says Masroor. His wife, Sofia, will be in charge of the kitchen; a cousin and a brother are currently training at Afghan Bistro in advance of moving to the District to support the opening, possibly as early as September. 

 

This is awesome news for the Palisades.

Tom, Just wanted to say thanks again for doing this chat. It's just one more reason I'm happy to subscribe to The Post.

How kind of you to say so. Let me return the bouquet: I couldn't do this discussion without the support (rants, raves, feedback) of my awesome readers.

Tom, just wanted to give a shout out to Stable. We needed a place to have dinner after a Fringe show and I remembered that you had written them up recently. It was awesome. They accommodated our request for raclette for 3 (it's usually a 4 person minimum). We got there early; no problem, they were happy to seat us. Service was fantastic--fast and friendly. The manager (owner?) came over to check in on us a couple of times. The space is gorgeous. We sat in the back where it was light and airy. We gorged ourselves on cheese and potatoes until we couldn't eat another bite. My friends often call me the Cheeseatarian, and I can honestly say that it was one of the best cheesy meals I've ever had. We will definitely go back.

Stable offers the city something different: Swiss cooking. I'm cheered to hear you had a memorable visit -- and a little surprised you went for raclette, given recent temperatures. Then again, melted cheese and sliced potatoes eaten with tangy gherkins have no season.

Tom, What's your take on servers/runners remembering who ordered what at the table? Example: a table of 6 has dinner coming out, the server brings three dishes and has a runner with the rest. The waiter then calls out "Who had the roast chicken? Roast chicken? ROAST CHICKEN?!?" while the group is mid conversation, not paying attention, and the waiter has to stand there until someone realizes they need to awkwardly point out whoever had the roast chicken. I see waiters get upset by this but isn't it kind of their job to remember who ordered what? Or should diners not be so into their conversation that they ignore the waiter? Thanks, as always!

It's a server's job to remember who ordered what and which dish goes where. I, for one, hate having to listen to servers auction off food at the table.

Hi! I have a good friend coming into town next week and I just know he will want to experience some good Indian food in town. I would be up for it as well. Preferably as close to Dupont as possible so I can get home quickly. Thanks.

Washington is blessed with some excellent Indian cooking. Near Dupont Circle, the best purveyors are the Bombay Club for Old World romance and classical cooking and Rasika West End for a more contemporary approach to the cuisine. Both are owned by the same man, Ashok Bajaj, one of the city's most-admired diplomats.

Hi Tom, My boyfriend H and I were at one of our favorite restaurants for lunch on Sunday. We ordered their 3-course lunch special. Appetizers came without issue. But the entrees took nearly 30 minutes to arrive at our table. Our waiter apologized once, admitting he forgot to put the order in. But when our entrees did arrive, our waiter never checked on us. Once we were finished, we got our desserts, but he never checked on our dessert either. He simply cleared our plates, and gave us the check when we were done with our meal. However — he did give us the dessert for free. We were thankful for the free dessert, but confused about the spotty service, so we left a 15% tip rather than our usual 20%. Do you have any advice on how to handle situations like these?

Assuming the three-course lunch included dessert, how was dessert "free?" Did the forgetful server take off a percentage of the bill? 

 

At any rate, you deserved better than the attention you received. Thirty minutes is an epic amount of time between courses at lunch. I hope you raised the issue with a superior? You were right to leave only 15 percent on the bill. i can imagine less forgiving customers leaving less. 

 

Hi Tom - been having a run of bad service experiences lately, including at some big-name places that you recommend weekly. Think servers ranging from clueless, with no knowledge of the menu and how to structure a meal from it, to downright argumentative. It's long been my experience (following your reviews for close to 10 years!) that D.C. service can be hit or miss, just my observation based on dining here and in lots of other cities. So, what are some places that you would say to have the best wait staff, to help restore my faith in the D.C. dining experience? No constraints on cuisine or price point - just want your personal faves. Thanks!

I've never had anything less than exceptional service at, among other establishments, the winsome Tail Up Goat in Adams Morgan, the opulent Fiola Mare in Georgetown and the just-reviewed Millie's in Spring Valley. The last is the most casual of the bunch, but endearing.  

When is it acceptable for a restaurant to in effect blame its success on its inability to promptly serve all customers. I ask because in recent months (once in a high-end steak house and twice in a neighborhood restaurant) my party was told that "a big group was being served" or "it's a really busy night for us." Both restaurants have sections set aside for just such big parties and require reservations and both tend to specialize in special events (birthdays, rehearsal dinners). My party waited for 20 minutes after the waters landed to get our orders in and then had another 25-30 minute wait before the first course. Our politely worded expressions of concern were met with the above comments and a "what can you do?" shrug. We know what we can do, going forward, which is to write these places off our list. Is it unreasonable to expect that restaurants that actively solicit large parties also appropriately staff front and back of house to serve everyone in a reasonable amount of time?

This sounds like a case of bad management to me. It doesn't take a math wizard to know that large parties are going to require more staff. To blame pokey service on too few staff only makes the restaurant look and sound sillier.

 

If this has happened multiple times, you shouldn't cross the culprits off your list until you've let a supervisor know why you won't be back. Or, just copy and paste this post in an email and send it to the restaurant. The establishment should know.

Where should I go? Besides somewhere for biscuits.

My last dining tour of Nashville was several years ago, but I think my report from then still holds up.

Hi Tom, My family of 5 is coming into town on Sunday and wondering if you had any recommendations on where I could take them? They don't like anything too sophisticated or fancy and their favorite kinds of foods are Italian and Seafood. (ie: they love a good veal parm dish, salmon dish, etc). Looking to spend under $30/entree or so and the restaurant doesn't have to be in DC proper as I have a car. Thanks!

How do chicken parm and grilled swordfish in Glover Park sound? Casolare  offers both those dishes, plus very good pizza, in a cozy setting that evokes the restaurant's name in Italian: farm house. 

Long time fan and local reader here -- Any dining suggestions in Savannah GA? Any and all types of eateries are welcomed. I saw an older chat where you stated that Savannah does not have much of a dining scene, but I wonder if anything has changed. Also, we will be spending a day in Charleston with dinner at Husk, based on your recommendation -- looking forward to it! Thanks.

I continue to recommend The Grey in Savannah to readers who continue to return raving about the restaurant, set in a refurbished bus station. On the menu: foie gras and grits and whole-roasted trout, among other southern-leaning combinations. 

Hi Tom - Love the chats. My sister and I are going to Arroz tonight, and having just read your review with lots of yummy descriptions, I was wondering what you'd recommend we order. It's a bit of a splurge on our budgets so we don't know when we'll be back, and we want to take full advantage! No dietary restrictions whatsoever. Thanks!

You read my review of the Morrocan/Spanish newcomer and you still don't know what to order? Hmm. I'm clearly not doing my job. I'd definitely splurge on a cocktail, share the avocado-almond salad and split one of the rice-based dishes called bombas.

Tom - so disappointed to go to Le Diplomate this week, order my favorite COUPE GLACÉE CHOCO-CAFE for dessert (which is still "on" the menu) only to be told it's not on the menu anymore. WHY? WHY? This mean there's no decadent chocolate dessert anymore. There are many other things on the dessert menu that would be more deserving of a replacement.

But then, the restaurant would get similar complaints from the crowd that loves its profiteroles, tarte Tatin and creme brulee! I agree, though, it's a tease to see something you like, then be told it's no longer available. If you like chocolate, try the admirable pot de creme at Le Diplomate.

My husband was a dining room manager at a family-owned restaurant years ago. If a group was camping out at a table while others were waiting, he'd offer the "campers" a round of drinks if they'd move to the bar. Seemed like a win-win for everyone.

Except that someone -- the restaurant -- still has to pay for the drinks. 

Hello, Hoping this question will get picked up this time - third try is the charm? Running out of time.... I'm hosting a gathering in late August for three friends who were roommates at college many years ago. They are all turning 60. Their wives and adult children are coming and we will be 14. Bad timing as I'm away until two days before, so I'm thinking of getting some part of it catered but I don't want a whole catering company service etc and wondered if you had any suggestions for good restaurants that might cater a main dish and sides that I could collect. Thanks Tom!

You don't mention where you are located (folks, help me out with specifics!), but I've had terrific -- light, interesting -- food from Raku in Bethesda at a friend's house before. You might also consider one of the area's better Peruvian chicken outlets, maybe Don Pollo on Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda. It never hurts to call a restaurant you like and see if they can't come to your rescue, either.

 

I'll post your request and see if someone in today's audience might be able to provide a suggestion or two. 

Every couple of months I get together with some friends. We hit a new dining spot each time and we linger...and linger. I'm VERY self-conscious about the "camping" problem, so I make it a point when making a reservation to ask if holding the table for up to four hours would be OK. I usually get a grateful "yes" and we are accommodated guilt-free. As for the tip... let's just say we make it worth the waiter's while.

You occupy a table for FOUR HOURS? What are you discussing, world peace? Climate change?

 

Good for you for asking the restaurant in advance and tipping well, but I can't imagine many busy restaurants agreeing to such a long stay.

What are you loving in Manhattan these days?

I shared a list a chat or so ago. I'm not sure I'm "loving" any one place, but I had some nice meals at the Grill (upscale chop house) in the former Four Seasons and Empellon (upscale Mexican) in Midtown.

Mr. Sietsema, In response to the chatter's request, we would like let him know that all of Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants offers catering services. We can provide antipasti platters, pastas, main courses, and side dishes appropriate to any size event. The chatter can contact Lauren O'Leary at events@fabiotrabocchi.com to review the details. Sincerely, Jessica Botta Director of Training & Culinary Development Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants

Restaurant to the rescue! (Grazie!)

Hi Tom! I'm taking my (former chef) father and my (no-shelfish, kosher-style) mother to New Orleans for three days. Any ideas of a place to eat that might blow both of them out of the water?

My Valentine to New Orleans is chock-full of capsule reviews of restaurants and bars that underscore the deliciousness of the food scene there. If you don't do Friday lunch at Galatoire's or dinner at Upperline, you'll be missing two of the city's best assets.

That doesn't just happen here. I saw a Rick Steves travel show from Paris. He and a colleague were at their table and the server showed up with two plates and didn't know who ordered which dish. We are not alone.

No we are not.

Tom, you travel abroad. I was born in Italy and have been living here for the last 25 years. Even though I'm 99% "American", I am still astonished by how expensive is to eat well here - in a restaurant, I mean. I'm lucky enough to be able to afford it but I'd like to hear from you. Why is that?

I think it depends on where you live. In places like San Francisco, New York and Washington, rents tend to be pretty high. So are labor costs, especially in markets that support "living wages."  (That's a brief response to a question that deserves more time, but the hour is almost up.)

Last time we did this (meeting up with someone we hadn't seen in ages), we deliberately went out for a late lunch, by which time the restaurant's lunch-rush was pretty well over. Since we'd picked a place that doesn't close between meals, we were able to stay for 3+ hours without depriving any customers of a table (which otherwise would've gone empty, generating zero revenue). We DID, however, order food and beverages leisurely throughout most of our time there, had a long enjoyable chat with our server (who even snapped a few photos of our reunion for us), and tipped her generously when we left.

Gotcha.

We would like to celebrate my friend's 40th birthday with dinner Saturday night in the District. She is coming up from Virginia Beach and is moving to Boston next summer. She only spent four years in Northern Virginia and rarely dined in the city. Is there someplace we can go for a memorable evening without already having a reservation?

In the District proper? You don't include a cuisine, locale or price preference, so let me throw out some possible festive venues, including Nopa Bar + Kitchen in Penn Quarter for stylish American and Boqueria in Dupont Circle for Spanish small plates.

 

The one thing you have going for your plan: It's summer in the city, and a lot of folks are out of town. Even so, I'd call today for Saturday. 

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Let's meet again next Wednesday, same time. Thanks for the good company.

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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