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

Jul 29, 2015

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.

Recently, in a somewhat uncharacteristic move, I took the pen from a restaurant after signing the bill. The pen is plastic with a click-top and has the restaurant's name on it. I contend that I am providing advertising for the restaurant by using their pen in other settings. My husband contends that I am providing advertising of my theft. Is he right?

I put pens in the category of matchbooks (remember those?). Both are inexpensive marketing tools and extensions of a restaurant's hospitality. In short, I wouldn't lose any sleep over your latest acquisition.

 

Good morning everyone. Thanks for joining me for another 60 minutes or so of food chat.

 

What's on your mind? I'm still dreaming about the week I spent eating around Philadelphia, the fifth subject in my survey of the Top 10 Best Food Cities in America and also the happy meals I experienced at the new, three-star Clarity closer to home in Vienna.  

 

I'll be in New Orleans on chat day next week, but I plan to pre-address as many of the early submissions as I get before I go on Tuesday.  The early bird will get the worms.

 

Let's begin.

For the past couple of months, I've had some pretty mediocre meals at Fiola. Fiola's food used to be unsurpassed, but now it's OK (but the service is still the tops). I"m wondering if the chef's focus on Fiola Mare now is resulting in some slips in his other restaurants. It's a shame for those of us working in Penn Quarter who want some top quality food.

Thanks for the feedback. Can you offer up some examples, please? My last meal at the Italian original -- a lunch a couple months ago -- tasted spot-on.

Hi Tom! Even though we moved away from DC 7 years ago I still follow your reviews and chats religiously. We will be back in the area in early September, just in time for my husband's birthday and I'd love to take him out to dinner in DC. When we lived there we visited Central, Citronelle, Vidalia, Cityzen, 2 Amys, and a few others whose names escape me. We have no dietary restrictions and a semi-healthy budget (about $150 before tax & tip). I'm thinking Rasika or Le Diplomat but I'd love to get your opinion. Thanks so much!

Two of the five restaurants you mention no longer exist. If you've not been to the original (and recently renovated) Rasika, by all means reserve a table there. It's the best modern Indian cooking in the country. Last year, it ranked No. 1 on my list of favorite restaurants in my annual fall dining guide.

Is it proper to ask for a doggie bag for bread and butter? Assuming it is proper is it okay during the course of the meal to requested additional bread and at end request a doggie bag for the bread?

 I see no reason why you shouldn't be able to wrap up uneaten bread and butter but I have a problem with asking for more bread with the intention of just taking it home.  A question for you: Are we talking mass-produced bakery stuff or the artisanal variety?

Tom, why do restaurateurs just not get it? A couple of weeks ago I was in one of the most long-acclaimed fine dining rooms in the city, from a prolific local chef. Probably 10 tables so I can see what is going on. Literally every other table (of 50+ year-old couples and clear regulars) is getting fawned over by the sommelier, the maître d', etc. Not us - the only twentysomething couple. Instead we wait 10 minutes for a menu, no wine list, 15 minutes between courses, completely indifferent service. Tom, I know your standard advice re: managers, and I usually act on it, but I'm not going to make a scene about the service in the middle of a $200/pp+ dinner - and at that price point I shouldn't have to. Not just me either - numerous yelp reviews from other younger diners pointing out this treatment at the establishment in question. When are these operators going to wake up and realize that young people around here 1) earn money, 2) eat out, and 3) aren't stupid?

I hope your post is flagged on restaurant bulletin boards and brought up in staff meetings everywhere. You are hardly the first twenty something to raise this issue. 

 

Restaurants: Never assume. And keep in mind that today's first-timer can become tomorrow's regular if proper attention is paid to the customer.

Tom, There has been a lot of discussion here about online menus either being nonexistent, or not updated, etc. How about the practice of restaurants posting menus only in PDF form, forcing you to download them? It takes longer to wait for the PDF to download and often the download fails so I give up on the restaurant (looking at you, Iron Gate tasting menu). Why can't restaurants just post a menu instantly visible on the website instead of forcing customers to download it??

Good question! Restaurants? Please? 

 

P.S. Don't forget to add the prices to the menus. Part of hospitality is providing useful information.

I've got a big birthday coming up and wanted to celebrate by finally going omakase. My only trouble is that I don't know where to go! It seems like there are only three options for really doing this right--Sushi Taro, Kaz, and Makoto? Price is generally not a concern, and it's just a dinner for two.

Makoto in the Palisades is the most tradition-bound of choices and Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle is the most adventurous. In between are Kaz Sushi Bistro downtown and Sushiko in Chevy Chase.  Personally, I'd treat myself to Sushi Taro.

Ate there last night, gazpacho, squash blossoms, striped bass, tortellini all excellent. Cool space, interesting beverage list, friendly, efficient service. Definitely one of the better places on the Hill. Will be back soon.

Former Poste chef Rob Weland and company are a true breath of fresh air on the Hill, I concur. I am eager to go back for seconds. (Ask for Ezra, one of the best waiters I've encountered in ... months.)

Hi Tom. I am going to SF in a couple of weeks for a solo vacation. I will re-read your Postcard beforehand. Question: what are your favorite places there for a solo gal to eat at the bar and enjoy herself? I'm thinking a Palena-esque vibe. Thanks, Tom! Mwa!

The place that comes closest to the late Palena in spirit is the Mediterranean- and French-themed Zuni Cafe, which I count as one of my favorite restaurants in the world. Try to sit downstairs, if possible, *near* if not at the bar, which I believe is for standing and drinking only. Trust me on this. 

Hi Tom, Thanks for everything you have done for the dining scene in DC. I have a question about wine temperature. We recently ate at Urban Butcher and learned that despite having multiple bottles of white wine on the list, the only ones offered chilled are white wines by the glass. Is this the new trend or is this restaurant the odd duck? All other aspects of the meal were fantastic by the way, and the waitress managed to get a slight chill on our rose using a wine bucket with ice, so this was really our only gripe.

Urban Butcher sounds like the odd duck to me. White wine shows poorly without a chill on it. Let's hope the restaurant stocks lots of ice buckets for the chardonnay/gruner veltliner/pinot gris crowd!

Hi, Tom. I am a single woman and it may be a minute before I am in a relationship again and an even while longer before I am in a relationship serious enough that we have dinner at the Inn at Little Washington. But I really want to go. I have never been and it seems outdated and silly to put off going until there is a man in my life. Is the Inn a comfortable place for a solo diner? Or will I just feel like conspicuous crap because I will be surrouned by dewey-eyed couples?

 You know what happens when you wait for the perfect moment to do something? Life passes you by. By all means, treat yourself to dinner at one of my favorite splurges in the country. My hunch is the staff will fall all over themselves pampering you. 

Love the chat, read it every week without fail! My SO and I have tickets to see the Book of Mormon in a week at the Kennedy Center. Any suggestions for a place to get dinner nearby that isn't Marcel's. Although Marcel's sounds delicious, we were hoping for something a little less expensive ($60-$80 for two without drinks). Any non-Marcel's suggestions?

I'd opt for the lounge at Rasika West End, a short cab ride away, or the more down-home Bayou in Foggy Bottom for food reminiscent of New Orleans. 

Hi Tom! We are traveling to Chicago in early October. Our daughter will be a year old so unfortunately we can't hit a lot of the restaurants from your recent article. Other than Xoco, can you recommend a few places where a baby won't be totally out of place? Thanks so much!!

Another of my Top 10 Food Cities: Chicago, where the three of you might feel most comfortable if you sup early at The Radler, a terrific German tavern, and Dove's Luncheonette, home to a mean chicken fried chicken, among other dishes.

Hi Tom - My husband and I are driving back to VA from a wedding in Michigan and want to stop for a day in Pittsburgh. Do you have some recommendations for meals - breakfast, lunch and dinner. We plan to stay by the waterfront, and money isn't an issue. We love trying all new foods, and we've heard good things about Pittsburgh. Thanks!

My Style colleague Maura Judkis recently wrote about her hometown for Travel. Dig in.

Hi Tom, When dining out in DC or venturing to a new city, I often depend on online reviews for guidance. While I understand palates and rating systems vary, there seems to be so much variance amongst the sites, making decisions more challenging. For example, Ananda, which I found to be less than mediocre, is #16 on Washingtonian's Top 100, while 701 Restaurant, whose food is consistently superb, was completely omitted yet made Gayot's Top 10. What are your most trusted sites and why?

No surprise, I tend to trust the lead critics at major publications (newspapers more than magazines), in part because the best ones are eating out widely; have the resources to do so; and aren't beholden to advertising or other forces (like circulation figures). Yelp is all over the map. So is Travel Adviser. Eater can be good, depending on the editor and writers in a given city. Not all Eaters are equal.

 

Travel tip: When you find yourself in a restaurant you like, ask the staff where they go on their own dime for good food. I've found some real gems that way over the years.

Tom: I have two, 30-something friends visiting soon. One is a pescatarian. The other is gluten-free. Any suggestions on good, lively restaurants where they'll both have plenty to choose from?

I'll probably sound like a broken record here, mentioning Kapnos Taverna again, but the Arlington restaurant from Mike Isabella has the vibe and the variety you're after. 

I loved your piece on Philadelphia. Having lived there for a short time, I am very familiar with Reading Terminal Market and always tell visitors they must go there for some great food. Glad to read you had the same experience!

Thank you. I was fortunate to have met longtime food writer Rick Nichols just before my trip and then have him guide me to the best of the lot at Reading Terminal. Some stuff there is mediocre; he helped steer me to the finds I mentioned. 

If the pen or matchbook or whatever has the name of the restaurant (or doctor's office or law firm) on it, you can safely assume that it is intended to be taken by the customer or patient or client as a "branded" product. This rule does not apply to doors or wall plaques, of course.

Or rugs or potted plants or paintings -- all of which I've read about being "taken" from restaurants by customers. 

Might have been helpful to tell her which two, so she can work around it if Rasika is not an option.

Sorry! CityZen and Citronelle. I miss both a great deal. 

I have a strong aversion to this vile weed. And it seems to pop up everywhere. With so many people that feel as I do about this, why do some restaurants fail to list this as an ingredient on the menu?

Menu writers aren't mind readers, but they should flag ingredients that tend to provoke strong reactions, cilantro being one of those things. (Other ingredients that should be mentioned include nuts, cheese and chilies.)

One could tell the server how much they enjoyed the most-excellent bread and ask if it is possible to purchase some to take home. The restaurant would probably give it to her anyway.

Ah, better response than I offered. Honey trumps vinegar! Thanks.

Tom, that question resonated with me. I'm a young 51 year old woman and have wanted to go there for a while. Just like your poster, I'm unattached (and content about it), well traveled and low maintenance and, if your poster is over 30 something (? not sure I'd have much in common with someone younger than that), and does not want to go there solo, I'd be interested in joining her. Just looking for company for one meal. Doesn't have to be a friend for life....

Happy to introduce the two of you if you both provide me with your names and email contacts.

If the pen bears the logo of the restaurant, then I agree it's fine to take it. I've also met a number of servers who have told me they have to provide their own pens, so taking those is a no-no.

Thanks for pointing that out.

I think most people that feel slighted are just overly self conscious. My experience is that most younger people actually tip BETTER than the older crowd who grew up leaving a quarter on the table at the local diner....

Which reminds me to remind everyone (again): Never assume!

Maybe I'm just getting old but I find that many restaurants in DC hustle you through the meal too quickly. I don't want to hog the table all night, just would like to have a couple hours and enjoy a few courses over conversation with friends, like a European meal. What are your favorite mid-priced (entrees $15-20) dinner spots to not be rushed in the general area of Columbia Heights, 14th Street, and Shaw? We like all cuisines!

I never feel rushed at Ghibellina or Etto on 14th St. NW or Thally in Shaw. 

Hi Tom! I'm headed to Savannah in September with my family and would like to have a nice meal out one night. Do you have any recommendations? Thanks!

Savannah is tricky. Not a lot of memorable eats there. The restaurant I'm most eager to try is a place called The Grey, set in a former bus station and owned by a former chef from New York.

Sushi Capitol's another omakase option for the diner if Taro's out of his/her price range. I've heard lots of raves.

Yep. I know Tim Carman is a fan.

Hi Tom. I'm headed to Lupo Verde for dinner this weekend. I've never been before and really don't know much about it, but I've heard it's good. Do you have any particular recommendations for what's tasty there? Also, I was wondering if there are good bars nearby for a cocktail afterwards. Thanks.

Can I be honest? My early meals at Lupo Verde weren't very good and I haven't heard anything since from diners to change that impression. If you want Italian, try Ghibellina down the street. For cocktails, I'm a fan of  the bars at Estadio, Two Birds/One Stone and Tico.

Mr. Sietsema, we hope you'll post the following to the chat member: Thank you for posting about your recent dining experiences at our restaurant, Fiola. We are disappointed to hear that on your most recent visits we couldn't deliver the same quality of food that you are accustomed to at Fiola. What you experienced is certainly not representative of our standard of cuisine and hospitality. We would like to understand more specifically what disappointed you about your recent meals. We have truly appreciated your support and patronage of Fiola, as we know there are lots of options in Penn Quarter and elsewhere in the city. We hope you will allow us to invite you back as our guest at your earliest convenience and know that we can regain your confidence in us! Please contact jessica@fioladc.com or call us at (202) 628-2888.

Love the quick response. Thanks, Fiola.

 

That's a wrap for today. Remember, I won't be present next week, but I will pre-address questions, so send your rants and rave well ahead of the usual 11 a.m. discussion.

 

Ciao for now!

In This Chat
Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s sidewalk.com and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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