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

Jul 31, 2019

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.

A few weeks ago, I was having an early dinner at Campono, before attending a performance at the Kennedy Center. This is our go to restaurant for a number of years. This particular afternoon we watched our server pick up a pizza and continue her conversation with another member of the staff for more than 5 minutes while holding the pizza. My husband remarked that he sure hoped it wasn’t our pizza. Guess what! That’s exactly whose pizza it was. When we asked to see a manager, our server said she was a manager. We then asked to see the general manager, remembering how you advise your readers to be proactive. The person who she was conducting her lengthy conversation with our server came over as he is the GM. We attempted to explain that we were unhappy because our server held our hot pizza while conducting a conversation with him, who clearly should know better. What was his response? He shooed us off with his hands!! We were speechless to say the least. Later on another member of the staff, John, whose position was not made clear to us, came over and diffused the situation to our satisfaction. I’d like to let the owner of Campono know about this but have no way of getting in touch with her other than the general email address posted on the website to which we received no response. What should a customer when a manager responds in this way?

Patronize a more hospitable restaurant? If the story you describe to me is accurate -- "more than five minutes" is indeed a long time if you're a diner on a mission -- the server and general manager both need a refresher course on efficiency and good manners.  For anyone in the business of feeding people to shoo anyone away is bad form, and a sign that the proprietor doesn’t care, either (or isn’t aware of performance issues at the restaurant).

 

Good morning, everyone. What's on your mind today? Type to me.  And if you're looking for someplace new to eat and drink for not a lot of money but maximum "wow," look no further than the new Hanumanh on 7th St. NW. The Laotian watering hole, the subject of today's First Bite column, comes from the owners of the popular Thip Khao in Columbia Heights.

 

Let's get started.

I was at Woodmont Grill for a special occasion recently and the service was very aggressive in trying to get us out of the restaurant as quickly as possible to the point where they were grabbing plates before we were done eating. Note, we were not lollygagging by any means, in fact we had only been at the table for 45 minutes and they were already clearing our glasses/napkins as well. Have you noticed this dining there? I get that restaurants need to make money and churn tables but I felt that it was incredibly over-the-top and rude.

It's a popular restaurant. But that's no reason for Woodmont Grill to turn tables as quickly as you describe. Most restaurants plan on two customers spending 90 minutes, start to finish, a time frame that increases when more diners are involved. Four people, for instance, are typically allotted two hours.

 

The best way to let a restaurant know you want an unrushed meal is to tell them from the start, then  hope your entree doesn't come on the heels of your first course.

Tom, with the abundance of seafood in this area, why is it difficult to find a really good fish soup/stew here? French, Italian, New England versions all good, but hard to find for me in NoVa. Help?

Fish soup in NoVa anyone? I don't recall spooning into it there, at least not recently.

Hi Tom, love your chats breaking up my Wednesday! I am a young (year out of college) and had etiquette questions about dining at nicer (let's say entrees over $20 for my budget) places. Would it be frowned upon to go to a restaurant and just order dessert with a partner? Often I want to try the desserts at a location (totally a sweets person) but don't have the $ for a complete meal. Would it be better to order an accompanying drink, or be seated after the dinner rush? I wouldn't expect super attentive service because I'm not paying dinner prices, but wouldn't want to insult the wait staff by taking up a table just for dessert either.

If it's just dessert you want, consider a seat in the bar or lounge of an upscale restaurant, and go early or late if you can, when seats might not be as in demand as at prime time. It wouldn't hurt to call ahead and ask a restaurant the question you just put to me about ordering a single course. A host or manager would have a better idea of the flow of a given night, table availability, etc.

We are going to be in Cleveland for a wedding at the end of August, and we'd like to have a nice dinner the night before with some family, about 10 people total. Do you have any recommendations for a restaurant that isn't overly expensive, and preferably downtown or not too far?

Here are 10 picks from three years ago, when I last visited Cleveland. I'd probably put Mable's BBQ, the seafood-themed Alley Cat and the farm-to-table Flying Fig at the top of your list of considerations.

Hey Tom. Planning a birthday celebration that will include 3 couples. Considering an early stop at Columbia Room followed by dinner though nothing yet set. Do you have thoughts on a good pairing for drinks and then dinner? Would prefer separate locations. Thanks.

Columbia Room is a great start to the night, and it suggests something equally weighty afterwards for dinner. (Am I right?) My first inclination is to send you to Seven Reasons, the new Latin American outpost on 14th St. NW that recently reopened after a fire in the bar next door. My other thought is to send you to Rose's Luxury on the Hill, where I was recently reminded what a joyful restaurant it is.  Don't miss the green tomato salad and the hand-made farfalle with 'nduja and pecorino.

Hi Tom - Big fan here! What are your thoughts on Rose's Luxury? It used to be a favorite of yours but I haven't heard it mentioned recently. I ask because I am looking for a somewhat affordable tasting menu to take my significant other out to a fancy dinner (less than $100/person not including alcohol) and this seems to be a good option. We've done the tasting menu at Rasika and loved it. Any other recommendations in the District? Preferably Italian for this upcoming choice. Thanks!

Yes, the aforementioned  Rose’s Luxury is still worthy of your appetite, but the menu there is a la carte. Across town, Rooster & Owl has an interesting four-course tasting menu for $65 and I’m tickled to see that barbecued carrots and cornbread ice cream are still part of the mix. You asked about Italian. Obelisk in Dupont Circle comes to mind, but my last experience there (a year ago) was disappointing. If you’re willing to give it a chance, the menu falls within your budget; five courses go for $78 Tuesday-Thursday and $88 Fridays and Saturdays.

Is Restaurant Week worth it? I've gone in the past, but undecided on it this year. Some restaurants on the RW don't appear to really be that different price wise on the RW menu from their normal menu. I'm also thinking it's more crowded, and wondering if the kitchen is really putting out their best during RW.

The deals and selections vary. Smart restaurants give customers at least a couple options per course and feature dishes that reflect what their chefs serve on a regular basis.

Tom - I am anxiously waiting for August 16 to reserve a table (2 weeks out!) at The Dabney for August 30 to celebrate my spouse's birthday (his requested venue). In the interest of not ending up with repeat or (gasp!) no options, which would you make a reservation at now as a still very exciting backup - Filomena, Chez Billy Sud, or Oval Room?

Those are three very different kinds of restaurants. I'd say Filomena offers the biggest portions and the most colorful interior; Chez Billy Sud features solid French cooking and a bistro air to match; and the Oval Room offers the most creative American cooking. That help narrow down the (non-Dabney) choices?

Hi Tom, I'm on the hunt for cacio e pepe and was shocked to see it's hardly on any menus! Having trouble locating a good one, do you have any suggestions? Preferably DC, Bethesda or Tysons area. Thank you!

You're in luck. Both the Van Ness and downtown branches of Sfoglina offer the classic "cheese and pepper" combination, featuring house-made bucatini at the former and tonnarelli at the latter.  A little lemon zest goes in the pasta, too.

 

Just want to make readers aware of a less-expensive way to dine at Metier--my husband and I went to one of their farm dinners (four courses featuring one veggie, ours was eggplant, it was awesome)--Metier is usually $200 a person, the Tuesday farm dinners are half that--however! even though it's a farm dinner and more affordable, my they still require jackets, my husband forgot a jacket (it was the thousand degree days last week) so he had to run home and grab one. If you go to one, request the table next to the kitchen window!!! We got to watch them make and prepare all the meals for both Metier and Kinship. It was like watching an orchestra, we had a great time!

I like the idea of a farm dinner in a fancy restaurant on a weeknight, but not so much when the $115 list features a single ingredient (eggplant for five course? Hmmmm.)

I read your July 24 column about a reader who said he was chastised for not confirming their reservation at The River Cafe in London. My partner and I also made a reservation months in advance (based on your recommendation) and got a reminder a week before and the day before our reservation; I too did not respond to either and we were pleasantly welcomed when we arrived on June 19. The service was fabulous and was only surpassed by the meal. I would highly recommend it. On a side note, we also went to Saturne in Paris for a tasting menu, with a wine pairing, and it was equally good, with superb service. Both restaurants provided an unforgettable experience.

I'm happy to hear about your reception at River Cafe, mentioned in last Sunday's Magazine round-up of questions from readers. It sounds typical for the Italian restaurant, one of my favorite places to dine in London -- in the world, come to think of it.

Hi Tom, my boyfriend and I have dinner plans in Cleveland Park on Friday (at Dolan Uyghur- we've been curious, looking forward to giving it a try), and wondering if you had any suggestions where we might be able to grab a drink beforehand? Ideally somewhere laid back/not too loud, and an interesting cocktail list (bonus points if they have a happy hour). Thanks!

Nearby is Indique, which offers pleasing $8 cocktails and bar bites including samosa chaat and spiced beef appams weeknights between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Hi Tom: Any recommendations for homestyle cooking in the Nova suburbs? I grew up in the Midwest and am missing my mashed potatoes, pot roast, pie, etc. I've tried some of the places in DC like Unconventional Diner and Ted's but what I what I really want is more casual, relaxed fare. Any suggestions?

Cracker Barrel surprised me when I reviewed the nation's top casual chain restaurants. It was the only place from which I brought home leftovers, and I recall the meat loaf and pork chops as dishes tasting the most of home. (I'm a fellow Midwesterner, by the way.)  Area branches can be found in Sterling and Waldorf, among other places.

I've had the same experience at Woodmont. The server they told me that it was their policy "for the comfort of the diners" to remove any used dishes as quickly as possible. I thought Miss Manners says that you shouldn't clear dishes until everyone has finished in order to not make the last eater uncomfortable. I certainly didn't like having the server stop by so many times interrupting our meal to clear items, and I did feel awkward when I was the last to finish and everything else was gone from the table. Overall, it felt more like it was a push to get us out the door as soon as possible.

Miss Manners is right and Woodmont Grill is wrong (I say, mustering my best Judge Judy imitation)

Our favorite way to prevent aggressive service is to order only one course at a time. The main course cannot be delivered too soon if the kitchen doesn't know what to cook! In the past when we have requested slow service, the kitchen still fires the main course on their own schedule, and the main arrives while we are still eating.

Not every restaurant allows diners to order when they're ready, but I appreciate those that do (and understand why kitchens prefer servers taking complete orders).

Silver Diner isn't bad. McLean Family Restaurant is definitely non-fancy. Amphora in Vienna is decent, and open 24X7.

Thanks for the additional suggestions (although "isn't bad" doesn't strike me as a rousing recommendation).

Hi Tom! Went to the Coconut Club this past eeekend with some friends - we were excited to experience the ambiance and taste the food based on your last recommendation. The food was good - flavorful and pretty to look at. The ambiance was not as great. We had a reservation for 11am and when we walked in at 1055 they let us know they were not yet open and that we needed to leave. This was NOT a politely framed ask - and it led to us to waiting outside in the sun and debating whether or not we felt comfortable going back inside. When we went back in at 11am, they let us know they were STILL not ready to seat us and that we should come back at 1105-1110. We confirmed our reservation time for 11, asked if we should go elsewhere, and we were then begrudgingly seated. The woman who seated us was a little rude and clearly irritated with us and informed us of a power outage that led to everything being behind. Totally understandable, but why not share upfront? Instead everything made us feel like we were unwelcome. Here is my question: were we out of line being frustrated by the situation? Would a better restaurant have seated us inside with some water and a polite ask for patience?

That sounds like a fail on the part of the Hawaian-themed Coconut Club, which I've always found to as welcoming as a lei. The heat must have gotten the better of the hosts. No regular restaurants wants to turn customers away, certainly not customers with reservations.

I was always told to put my napkin in my lap when seated at the dining table. With naked tables, as you point out, there's no place to put you silverware to prevent contamination. But the nastiest item in most restaurants is the menu. How many people's hands have been on the menu before it gets to you? I wait to sanitize my hands after putting in my order. What do you do?

I tend to wash my hands before I eat, *definitely* before I pick up any food with my hands and/or after perusing a plastic menu. And I keep hand sanitizer on my person. I'm no germaphobe, but I've seen too much "stuff" of late not to take protective measures.

""more than five minutes" is indeed a long time if you're a diner on a mission" NO, Johnny Expense Account. It's an insult to the customer and an insult to the pie. No one says "I'd like a pizza that's been cooled for five minutes." God bless the poster for naming the restaurant!

Feel better now?

Al Volo in Adams Morgan has great Cacio e Pepe. If it's not on the menu it will usually be written on the chalkboard when you enter.

Good to know! Grazie.

I was pretty disappointed when I recently went to the new Laos in Town. I have a lot of food sensitives (medical - not by choice, not that it should matter), so I always look at online menus. There were two things on the menu I could eat, so we decided to go. When we got there, one was no longer on the menu (how is that even possible with a restaurant this new??!) and they were out of the other. So I got to sit there and sip my water while my friends ate dinner - super fun. I get that my food issues are my problem, but when I've done the research, I kind of expect to be able to eat. I also noticed a real lack of anything vegetarian, which sometimes is my default go-to when I'm in real trouble.

Wait, are you referring to the same restaurant I reviewed? Because Laos in Town has an entire list of VEGAN dishes.

As a local, I think it’s great to have the wealth of dining we have and I feel very fortunate to experience it. With so many talented chefs and restaurant teams around what do you see as the future of the industry and who/what are you excited about the most going forward?

I love the diversity we have in Washington. Food-wise, it's a true melting pot, reflective of the city's status as a world capital. And it just seems to get better, and more varied, from year to year. What's distressing is the current political situation and the increasingly shallow pool of support staff. Restaurant owners are all begging for reliable help.

I missed the chat last week, but lived in Morocco for two years. In Casablanca, try the excellent French food in a beautiful environment at Le Bistronome. If the chocolate mousse dessert is on the menu, by all means make sure you have it. In Fes, the cooking at Dar Roumana (which is also a beautiful place to stay) is top notch - described as French/Moroccan fusion. For traditional Moroccan fare, make sure to try chicken bastilla (chicken baked in a phyllo pastry with cinnamon - one of my favorite dishes), tagine with lamb and prunes, and msemmen for breakfast (like a Moroccan version of a pancake). Skip Rick's for food, please. A cocktail is sufficient to take in the ambiance and say you've been there.

The Morocco-bound travelers here thank you.

I got a new job and I'm taking a week off before starting in mid-August. Do you have any recommendations for DC places to take advantage of lunch while I have a little bit of freedom regarding location and time?

Lucky you -- SMART you, too, taking advantage of your current flexibility. You don't mention budget or cuisine preferences, but I think you should check out Pesce in Dupont Circle, America Eats Tavern in Georgetown, All-Purpose Pizzeria on the waterfront and Kaliwa at the Wharf before you return to the 9-to-5.

Long ago at a big-box office supply store chain, when we had a legitimate problem with an employee, she told us she was the department manager. When we thereupon asked to see the store manager, she went off to fetch an older woman who purported to hold that position. We later found out that neither of them held the position claimed, and that in fact the older woman was merely another employee there, the younger one's aunt to boot, who the younger one had obviously asked to cover her back side. In our case, we found a different office supply store to patronize, and never never returned to the offending one again, as our only other viable option would've been to send a letter or email to the chain's HQ (out of state).

Interesting! The effort it took to deceive you could have been put to better use improving the faux manager's service skills.

Another possibility for cacio e pepe: La Tomate. Had it there (outside!) on Saturday and quite enjoyed it.

The dish is not as uncommon as we thought it was!

Yikes - I didn't see the vegan menu online (my fault) and we weren't given the vegan menu when we were there (nor was it offered when I said I couldn't order anything after the waiter told me what I ordered wasn't available). I wonder why they don't just include that stuff on the regular menu? It seems odd to have a separate menu (that apparently you have to ask for?). I'll have to check it out

My review specifically mentioned the separate list. I think it was on the flip side of the standing menu?

Um the poster said s/he had food sensitivities, not that s/he was vegan. Maybe grains, nuts, and other sensitivities that have nothing to do with meat/poultry/dairy?

Right, but she also said she could usually eat vegetarian dishes. (Kids, you gotta read carefully here!)

Love him, love his good works, love everything about him! recently met him on an amtrak heading to NYC. He was busy and in deep conversation so I just passed him a note thanking him for all he does... hope that was ok!

What a considerate fan you are! I'm going to use your trick sometime.

Hi Tom - Can you recommend a few spots in Old Town for good cocktails (now that PX is gone) and dinner? Meeting a few girlfriends there for a mom's night out (my first since baby)! Location is fixed as it's an equitable distance for all of us to travel. Thank you!

The freshly-minted Oak Steakhouse is worth checking at out, for drinks, the obvious grilled meat and handsome setting.  Like a lot of places, the appetizers (grilled octopus, corn agnolotti) best the entrees, but there's a little something for everyone on the menu.

Hi Tom - Thanks for hosting this chat - it's my favorite Wed lunchtime read! In your opinion, who does the best steak in town? My dad is stopping by for an evening and is a steak guy! He is usually game for trying new places but does get a bit eye-rolly when I take him somewhere "cool" and "new" and "hip" if it doesn't meet expectations.

The city brims with good steaks. The "cool" factor can be elusive, however. As regular chat participants can probably guess, St. Anselm near Union Market best fits what both you and your dad might want from a meat market.

Going to Little Rock, Arkansas as part of a road trip in two weeks. While we have activities planned, I am at a loss at where to eat. Any suggestions? We are staying downtown and eat everything. Next stop is Memphis so no need for BBQ recommendations in Little Rock! Thanks in advance.

Little Rock, anyone? Suggestions before the hour is up?

Hi Tom, for our first anniversary, my husband got me a bottle of chateauneuf du pape to age until our tenth anniversary, which is now coming up in October. We'd like to have a celebratory dinner at a restaurant that allows corkage. We're thinking about either Bresca or Tail Up Goat, but are there other spots we should consider? We're open to any cuisine, but want something that will go with our wine. We're happy to splurge, but do want to avoid Inn at Little Washington or Minibar prices. A good cocktail program for pre or post dinner drinks would be a plus. Do you have any recommendations that we're not considering, or should we stick with one of our original ideas?

You have two great contenders there, but if you want to make the decision more challenging, consider Et Voila!, the charming Belgian eatery in the Palisades, where corkage fees are waived for the first bottle on Mondays.

That's about as gobsmacking as the "convenience fee" so brazenly attached to sales at Ticketmaster and its ilk. And thank you, Tom; I never before thought of the great Judith Martin as Judge Judy!

Constantly grabbing plates is not for the "comfort of diners," at least no diner in my circle of eaters.

Maybe meat dishes at high-end places. But I am always amazed at how the three courses often total $35 at many, if not most, of the restaurants that participate. And for vegetarians, forget about it! A vegetarian will always pay more, not less, for three courses during Restaurant Week. Summary: do the math first.

Thanks for the feedback. But let's remember, there ARE restaurants that excel at the promotion, too.

Tom,to your knowledge are there any restaurants that are taking any action to lower the sodium content in their food and make it heart healthy? Or at least are any of them going to add heart healthy items to their menus?

The one restaurant I can think of is True Food Kitchen, whose philosophy bridges "delicious dining and conscious nutrition." I like the food and drink I've had from the chain, which counts a branch in Bethesda.

Tom, My fiance and I are seeking a fairly casual restaurant venue for our small (and fairy casual) wedding of about 20-25 people. It is really envisioned as a nice dinner with close friends and family, no pomp and circumstance. We both love eating outdoors, but I'm having a hard time identifying a suitable semi-private option that won't break the bank. Love Iron Gate, but the food/bev minimum is a bit steep for the number of people. Any other suggestions in DC or its environs? Or am I looking for a unicorn?

The Middle Eastern-themed Zaytinya in Penn Quarter, the French-accented Primrose in Brookland, the creative American Hazel on V St. NW and the Tavern at Ivy City all feature attractive outdoor dining spaces. Begin your search anew with them.

In late May, my husband and I had the best eggplant parm & tiramisu at a small eatery in Rome. Now that I'm pregnant, I've found myself craving them. Any suggestions of places in the city to start checking out for either of the two?

I'm pleased to report you can find both cravings (more or less) at Alta Strada. The Italian serves an even better chicken Parm, however, and the dessert you want to save room for is called tiraffogato. It embraces the flavors of tiramisu (mascarpone, lady fingers) and involves pouring espresso over vanilla gelato.

No question, just a thank you for the recommendation of going to Arzak in San Sebastian. It was far and away the best meal of my and my wife's lives, and we had the singular pleasure of meeting Elena Arzak and speaking with her for several minutes. The whole experience was amazing.

Your post just made my day. Thank you for reporting back.

Hi there-We have a reservation for Marcel's tonight (pre-theater). Do you know if they offer the pre-theater menu in the lounge, or is it only table service? Also, are all the menus prix fixe or can items be ordered a la carte? Thanks for your help!

Fun! The pre-theater menu is typically served in the main dining room and costs $68. Diners select from three options per course. (Does that address your question?)

Any suggestions for a great DC-area restaurant or catering company to deliver brunch to a hotel post-wedding?

That sounds problematic to me: many hotels do not allow outside food. Have you checked with your hotel?

Our 14-year-old son is a non-meat eater and had jackfruit in a out-of-town restaurant last weekend. He loved it. Are there any places you would recommend that serve jackfruit as a meat substitute? Thanks!

The posh new Punjab Grill has delicious jackfruit dumplings on its menu. They're presented in a moat of tomato-cashew sauce.

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Let's meet again next Wednesday for more food chat. Chow for now!

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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