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

Jul 25, 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.

What did you think of Jonathan Gold’s legacy in the LA food scene?

Jonathan, who I last encountered in February in Copenhagen, where we were both reviewing the new Noma, was, hands down, a singular voice and the best food writer of his generation.  The man was brilliant -- irreplaceable, really. My colleague Tim Carman wrote an appreciation summing up his legacy. Giant shoes to fill in Los Angeles, for sure. 

 

Over the weekend, Eater invited a bunch of food scribes to share some of their favorite JG passages. Here's my contribution: 

 

Jonathan was so clearly in love with the city he covered, both old and current Los Angeles. His 2011 shout out to Musso & Frank Grill in the LA Weekly manages the neat trick of telling his audience everything they need to know about the place — why it matters, what to order, its place in history — in just a few lovely sentences. To read them is to *be* there, with Jonathan sitting across the table from you. 

 
“If you walk into Musso expecting to have the same kind of steak you had last week at Morton's, you probably have the wrong idea. Because before the restaurant became a martini-fueled Hollywood clubhouse, the place where Faulkner blew out his liver and generations of character actors learned to show up on Wednesday for the chicken potpie, the restaurant was practically a showcase for what was then considered California cuisine, a genteel marriage of the local produce, abundant local fisheries and masculinized lunchroom cooking: avocado cocktails smeared with sweet, pink dressing and frigid bowls of chilled consommé; fried smelts and dainty plates of crab Louie; kidneys Turbigo. This is what the cosmopolitan life was like, before Cosmopolitans. Or if you happen to be of a certain bent, you could always try a long, drowsy lunch of Vicodin, jellied consommé and Welsh rarebit, followed by a desert-dry Gibson and a long nap — an experiment in what one friend of mine calls gout-stool cuisine.”

The news that Jonathan died shocked a lot of us. His death was caused by pancreatic cancer, which was disanosed just earlier this month. His passing is a loss to criticism, to Los Angeles and to anyone who thought of food as more than mere fuel.

Weekend is doing a story about servers'  pet peeves and asked me to share a link for readers to weigh in about their experiences.  Here it is. 

Good morning, everyone. Tell me what's on your mind today.

Dear Tom. I loved your article about what makes a restaurant successful/profitable. It generally supported my view that service is more important than food. I will give a restaurant 2 or 3 chances to get the food right (after all, maybe I ordered one of the few dishes I would not like—who knows),and only one to get service right. Food is institutional; service is personal. (If you like that statement, I admit that it is from my very smart wife). Great article. Thanks. Howard

One of the restaurateurs I interviewed for the feature, today's Food section cover story, told me that diners are patient with food mistakes, but intolerant of poor hospitality. And boy, does my communication with readers back up that statement. 

Tom, Have you tried any of the Washington outlets of the out-of-town restaurants you included in your review? Do any of them measure up to the originals?

I've been to both Joe's downtown and Carmine's in Penn Quarter (though not recently in the case of the the latter). Both restaurants taste related to the originals, in Miami Beach and New York, respectively, although neither branch *completely* captures the feel of the oldsters. 

Perhaps you or one of your readers has a suggestion. We have a group of 8 for a 40th birthday in New Orleans . Everyone is coming from the east coast and no one has previously spent much time in the city. Birthday boy loves a good steak. I am torn between a top steakhouse in the city (Chophouse) which seems to be very much an excellent but standard steakhouse or a steak-house version of a New Orleans classic restaurant (Dickie Brennans or Galatoire's 33). Suggestions as to which way to go?

I reached out to Brett Anderson, the food dude at the Times Picayune in New Orleans, for an answer. He texted the following:

 

"The best meat, in my experience, is at  Mr. John's Steakhouse, a very traditional New Orleans-style place (meaning there is a lot of Gulf seafood on the menu), and La Boca, an ode to Argentine steaks." 

Hi Tom! My dear old dad's birthday is coming up and he's expressed an interest trying a restaurant with something visually engaging going on... whether it's the style of service (Fogo de Chao) or a bar overlooking a working kitchen (he loves the back bar at Estadio). Anywhere in the DC region at a lower or similar approximate price point works for us, and there are only 3 of us so we don't have large-party concerns. Also, don't be afraid to take a broad view of 'visually engaging' because last birthday, after Ray's the Steaks, the family did after-dinner bubbly on a hotel patio overlooking the Potomac, and he had the BEST time watching the planes zoom by on their approach into Reagan. Where should we consider for dinner and a 'show'? Thanks so much!

The new O-Ku DC, next to Union Market, sports a robata grill at its sushi counter. Watching meat warm over oak charcoal makes a nice visual. I also like the live fire cooking at the colorful Maydan, where the menu roams around Lebanon, Iran, Tunisia and beyond. And the new All-Purpose Pizzeria in Southeast has a menu as good as at the original, but a waterfront view in its favor. That help, I hope? 

Hello Tom, long-time reader of your chats from out of town here -- thanks for all you do. I will be in DC for a solo lunch Friday, coming from a part of the country without particularly diverse restaurant options beyond your standard American/western European fare. Where would you recommend that's got interesting cuisine and will welcome a lone diner?

You've come to the right city for worldly menus. Bindass in Foggy Bottom has a nice counter for solo acts, as does the recently-reviewed Kaliwa on the waterfront. The former serves Indian street food; the latter offers Filipino, Thai and Korean plates. 

Somehow another year has passed, which means another birthday. Due to work schedules/life, my significant other and I don't get a lot of time together so we're looking forward to a fun night out with dinner and probably drinks afterward. Right now, we're holding reservations for Sfoglina and Zaytinya. I had also looked at Maydan, but unfortunately wasn't able to get reservations. We recently had an amazing dinner for his birthday at Rare, but I'm looking for something other than steakhouse. Anywhere else you think we should try/can't miss in the city? Thoughts on which of the two reservations we should keep? Ideally in DC but also open to Arlington/Alexandria; pretty much open to any cuisine, though he's not much of a seafood person. Would love somewhere we could have dinner, and then move elsewhere in the neighborhood to get drinks afterwards but not a requirement. Thanks!

Hot tip: Poca Madre for upscale Mexican by Victor Albisu. The intimate restaurant, which replaces Del Campo, is the subject of my Dining column in this Sunday's Magazine. (If you decide to go, just remember to cancel in advance your other reservations. )

Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune, after 30 years of being a restaurant critic, recently identified himself to the public (photographically, that is). Alison Cook of the Houston Chronicle did so about five years ago, Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold ended his anonymity in 2015, and Laura Reiley of the Tampa Bay Times went public in January 2018. Are you considering ending your anonymity or do you still feel there's value in continuing to try to remain "anonymous"? Jeff (Jacksonville, FL)

I've worked so hard and so long to keep my mug away from cameras -- well, cameras that aren't in the possession of family or close friends -- I'm reluctant to reveal myself just because a bunch of my peers, most recently Phil Vettel, have done it.

 

Do I frequently get recognized? I do. Every visit I make to a restaurant? You'd be surprised at the number of times I've managed to eat under the radar, for at least part of a meal. For now, I want to be as anonymous as possible. 

I only recently learned that some people think it's OK to be 15 minutes late for a reservation. I think it's rude; and would call the restaurant if I was running that late (if only to save my seats). And I would be ticked off if I had to wait 15 minutes for a reserved table; but I don't recall that happening (though it must have). I hope your comment doesn't encourage more or both sides to think this is OK.

Allow me to clarify my position. I believe in a grace period of 15 minutes for both the restaurant and the customer -- which shouldn't be confused with the *better* practice of honoring a reservation, for the agreed-upon time, in the first place.  And yes to calling a restaurant if a diner expects to be delayed. 

Hi Tom! A friend is visiting me from New York next week. I would describe her as a foodie with generally hip, sophisticated tastes. She requested we go to Rose's, but I don't have time (or the desire) to stand in line. Do you have any suggestions for a restaurant of a similar caliber that takes reservations! Thanks for any thoughts!

The nearby Little Pearl, also from Aaron Silverman, takes reservations and has the advantage of an outdoor patio in good weather. The updated comfort food is different at Unconventional Diner, where David Deshaies reigns in the kitchen, but very much to my taste.  

I think this is more of a rant than a question, and maybe a word of caution to restaurants. We went to Chloe this week. The food is wonderful. I may never go back, however, because of the kitchen? Service? Management? I’m not even sure — maybe all. When we ordered, we only wanted to order our starters, not our entrees, so we wouldn’t wind up with entrees coming out before some of the appetizers. We were assured that would not happen, so we ordered. I think we were clear that we would share the appetizers but each person (there were 4 of us) was ordering his/her own entree. The first course came out as expected. Then the pork chop. Five minutes later the crispy fish. Ten minutes later with two entrees still missing and a pork chop and crispy fish getting colder by the minute, we spoke with a manager who told us that’s just the way they did it, but he would check. Five minutes more, the other two entrees arrived. So now I am faced with the option of going back because the food is quite good but just ordering shared plates, or not going back at all. I don’t like either option. Your thoughts?

Sigh. I miss the days when the wishes of the customers came before the whims of the chef. 

Hi Tom, any early reviews on the new Ivy City restaurant? I’ve walked by it a few times, and the space looks beautiful.

Stay tuned. I'll be writing about the newcomer next week, in a preview. Late of City Perch in Bethesda, Matt Baker is the chef, and he's offering tasting menus that vary in size, from four to seven courses. 

Hi Tom! Love your chats. I have a group of friends coming to DC. One lives in San Francisco, one lives in New York City, and those two are snobs about their cities' food. Where can I take my group of friends in DC that will impress them but is a place four 20-something guys could go in casual attire and not be out of place? I was thinking Maydan, but getting a reservation there seems impossible. Any other suggestions?

I keep sending readers to Tiger Fork in Blagden Alley and keep getting thanked in return. Check out the Hong Kong-inspired retreat. It's dark and casual and delicious. Reminds me very much of the night markets I've visited in Vietnam and elsewhere in SE Asia. 

Hi Tom....looking to get my brother and sister-in-law a gift card, (fyi - budget is around 100-150). Was originally thinking Maseria...but I know that won't cover it. Not sure what etiquette is on giving someone a gift card that won't cover entire price of meal. For what it's worth, my brother can afford it, I just figured giving a gift card would be the push to actually have him make reservations and go. Was also thinking Red Hen (DC), but wonder if it's impossible to get into these days. Open to other ideas, if you have any. (I've been to both and would love him to try them which is why my mind went to these places) Thanks so much!

Even fresher places to contemplate  (and within the price range you plan to give) are Spoken English in the Line hotel (great fun, that) and San Lorenzo, from the former chef at Tosca, in Shaw. 

Tom - I know you often caution against relying on old reviews, but my husband and I found ourselves in Falls Church Sunday evening (on the way to a funeral the next day), and were looking for somewhere new to us for dinner. (We lived in FC until early 2012 when we retired and moved away.) I searched for "Thai near me" and turned up Elephant Jumps, reviewed by you in August 2010. I recalled your mostly positive review, and we enjoyed a splendid dinner there. I spoke to the (presumably same) owner after dinner and told him that we visited based on your long ago review - which he seemed to remember - how much we enjoyed our dinner, and that we would be back. He was of course delighted, and you might want to consider a return!

Your timing is impeccable. I was JUST THIS WEEK reminding myself that it's been years since I dined at Elephant Jumps, and that I needed to see if the fish cakes, fried shredded papaya salad and shrimp "flatbread" lived up to my memories. Thanks for the prompt. 

Tom, Asking early in hopes you'll respond. My wife and I are having our second anniversary on a Monday 8/13. We love to eat out and want somewhere really nice and exciting. Having trouble finding a special place open Mondays (Metier, P&P, Minibar, Komi, etc.) all closed. I'm on a wait list at Himitsu, but would love to find something secure. Any thoughts on a special place that is open on Mondays? We love, but have already been to (Fiola, Fiola Mare, Rasika, Convivial)

Chloe is open on Monday. Sfoglina is open on Monday. Kinship is open on Monday. There are more possibilities than you might think! 

hi Tom, I always hear about how you can find delicious Asian food in Nova in spots such as Annandale, Falls Church and Fairfax. A few of my buddies and I want to go somewhere delicious for dinner for Saturday - we're open to any type of Asian cuisine in Nova except probably Korean as we had that recently. We don't need anywhere fancy - if there's an amazing hole in the wall type restaurant located in a strip mall with delicious food that would be fine by us. Are there any spots that you'd recommend? Thank you!

Peter Chang in Arlington should be on the top of your list. The restaurant, with a menu created by a former chef at the Chinese embassy, comes with a dash of style, and the food includes crowd-pleasers running from scallion bubble cakes to cumin-scented lamb chops. 

I read last weed's discussion about the senior citizen who wasn't serve as she was minus ID. This called to mind my millennial niece's wedding last year, in NY City. After the wedding, the young people went bar-hopping, my niece in her wedding dress. No purse or ID on her. Fortunately, her maid of honor had on her smart phone a photo of my niece's driver's license. Problem solved!!!

Now *that's* a responsible maid of honor! But how many of us keep photographs of our friends' identification? 

Tom: The late, great LA Times food reviewer Jonathan Gold said in interviews that he never took notes while dining because he had "good food memory." How do you handle it? Do you take notes openly, surreptitiously or otherwise?

Yet another detail separating most reviewers from the god that was Gold. There are typically way too many things happening at a meal not to keep track (somehow) of everything readers might want to know about. I'd rather not reveal my strategy in this space. Hope you understand. 

?

Readers, I am so very sorry about the delay this morning. I was typing away, relying to questions, when I was told nothing had published for more than 30 minutes. I forgot to hit the "live" button at 11 a.m. My apologies. 

Hello, were you a Foreign Service Officer ever? If so (or even if not), which international cuisine do you think the DC area does the best job of in having authentic versions of?

I intended to work for the State Department after I graduated from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, but life took another turn (one that I'm happy about, of course). But I've travelled pretty widely over the years, mostly in Europe, but also in South America and Asia.  Little Serow whisks me to northern Thailand whenever I eat there.  Rasika West End reminds me of some of the modern Indian food I've eaten in New Delhi.  The avant-garde food I've encountered at Minibar by Jose Andres is just as good as what I've had in some of the temples of haute cuisine in Madrid and Barcelona. And on.  Washington can be proud of much of what it does. 

Dined there last night and really enjoyed it. Be sure your review advises readers that it is on 8th street (the west side of Taco Bamba) as we discerned no signs and had to go into Taco Bamba (and subject our ears to the cacophony within) to find our destination.

Yep. The entrance is to the left of Taco Bamba. 

Hey Tom, In your opinion, who are the underrated and up and coming chefs in DC? Name 3 chefs that excite you right now.

One of the reasons I picked Elle as my No. 1 favorite new restaurant in the spring dining guide is Brad Deboy, late of Blue Duck Tavern. And I've never had anything less than very good from Marc Hennessy at his casual Tavern at Rare Steak and Seafood.  I'm very much looking forward to tasting what Marjorie Meek-Bradley has in store for us at the forthcoming steakhouse near Union Market, St. Anselm.  I could go on, but the lunch bell just rang.

Tom -- This reader might want to consider the chef's table at Pearl Dive on 14th St NW. It's literally inside the kitchen, and you spend the meal watching the chefs cook (surprisingly calm!) and talking with them. Really a hidden gem that my parents loved.

Thanks for the suggestion. Consider it passed along.

Thom still owns EJ but is definitely cooking fewer nights a week. He does go back to Thailand late summer usually and revamps the menu a bit upon his return in September. Newer items added to the menu worth checking out include Yum Pla Dook Foo (fried tuna and mango salad) and gang hung lay (pork tamarind curry).

Insider intel. Thank you.

Hi Tom, Love your weekly chats. Thank you hosting them. I was saddened by the news of Jonathan Gold's death this past weekend. This is a big loss to journalism. I was curious to know if you had ever met Jonathan and, if so, what were your thoughts about him.

As I wrote in the intro, I last saw Jonathan at Noma, where I went up to him and joked that Pete Wells was sitting next to me. (His eyes popped.) I mean, what are the odds of two critics eating in the same hard-to-book, faraway restaurant on the same night? 

 

In person, Jonathan seemed shy to me. But he was a good listener and would often not speak until others in a group had. And when he did, whole paragraphs of smart thinking poured forth.  I can't believe he's really gone. 

 

That's a wrap for today. Apologies for the delay, and thanks for your patience. Let's meet again next week at 11 a.m. 

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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