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

Aug 15, 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-- Should a waiter ask you to cut your steak--to ensure it's cooked to your preference--as soon as it's in front of you? I find this extremely off-putting. This happened the other night (the third time it's ever happened to me in all my steak-eating years), and the restaurant owner was walking around and briefly chatting to tables, so I told him that, while the steak was delicious, the whole experience of dinner and conversation was taken down a notch. He explained that it was to know immediately if a steak wasn't cooked to someone's liking. The problem with that logic, however, is that it's the server's job to make sure that *everything* is to the customer's liking, right? That's why they come back around a couple of minutes after serving the food, right? And isn't it the kitchen's job to make sure that things are cooked as ordered? I certainly don't want to be rude, but no, I will not cut into my steak the second the waiter sets it on the table and tells me to do it. Your thoughts?

Yes, the kitchen should cook your meat the temperate you want it, but diners' notions of  say, "medium" can vary, and I think it's better to verify desired done-ness sooner rather than later. I can see where a directive to "Cut!" right away might be distracting, but it's certainly not as annoying as other issues:  noise pollution, intrusive servers, uncomfortable chairs, dim lighting, etc. 

 

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for joining me for 60 or so minutes of restaurant chat. The Magazine doesn't publish this Sunday, so I don't have anything to feed you except for today's preview of Legal Sea Bar, a new dining option in Union Station. 

 

Let's get started. 

Hi Tom, We went to Bresca last night to celebrate a friend's birthday. Everything started out well, and we were even surprised with complimentary champagne because of the birthday. We ordered many of the dishes and everything at first was wonderful. But our last two dishes (the pork loin and the lobster) took about a half hour after the prior dishes to come out -- and when they did, we got skate wing (not lobster) and raw pork. We asked about the lobster and our waitress said "Oh I am pretty sure I told you we were substituting skate wing for the lobster, but it is very loud so you may not have heard." (She actually had never told us about the substitution but she was right about one thing, the restaurant is very very loud). We sent back the skate wing and didn't both mentioning the raw pork because it had taken so long to come out, we were ready to go. The restaurant has great potential but clearly has some issues still to resolve. Thanks as always for your wonderful reviews and for these chats!

 Skate and lobster are different enough that if the switch was mentioned when your order was taken, someone in your party would have commented -- had they heard mention. Right? As for the pork dish, I can't imagine a kitchen sending it out raw, and especially so late in the game. You missed an opportunity to correct a concern (possibly having the dish removed from your bill) by not saying anything at the time. Sweet of Bresca to offer gratis bubbly, though! 

Hi Tom, we went to UD tonight for RW dinner because of the lofty recommendation in your spring dining guide. Wow, it was amazing. I am so excited to have half the chicken parm in the 'fridge for lunch tomorrow. I love RW to try new places and in this case, we can't wait to go back - and take others with us.

Your post speaks to the he power of Restaurant Week when chefs make available some of their best efforts. Thanks for the feedback. Take a bow, Unconventional Diner

Hi Tom - Almost every week you make at least one passing reference to the "humongous portions" served in today's restaurants. However, with the exception of places, usually chains, that specifically go to market on portion size (Cheesecake Factory, Carmine's, etc.) or establishments that sell by weight (steakhouses), I rarely encounter this in the D.C. area. To the contrary, as a large, very active guy my biggest gripe is coming away unsatisfied - especially at D.C. price points. I've been eating at places that are mostly your suggestions for the better part of a decade now, and have just not seen the overlap that you perpetually allude to. So, let's hear a few names - who are some of the biggest "offenders" among mid/high-priced D.C. restaurants? Because some of us have got to eat!

I hear you! I hear you! Off the top of my head, I recall Tortino, the sunny neighborhood Italian restaurant on 11th St. NW, serving ample portions of food.  The Tavern at Rare Steak and Seafood downtown doesn't leave you raiding the fridge after a meal, either. Another restaurant to consider is Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House, which I recently re-reviewed for a story on some of the nation's highest-grossing independent restaurants. In general, steak houses deliver what you want, too.

I don't see what the problem is. I'd be pleased that the restaurant cares how whether the steak is done to my liking. It does make me wonder if people eat half a steak and then complain it wasn't cooked properly.

I've heard about that happening before -- with steak and other pricey dishes.

This. Was the poster's problem with the waiter's tone or attitude? Because having the waiter there to verify the correct doneness immedieately strikes me as ideal.

I read it as if the diner didn't like being told to do something the moment he got his steak. If the OP is with us this morning, maybe he could clarify.

Our 6 month old is getting baptised at the end of August. Her grandparents and uncle will be here to celebrate and we'd like to get lunch or brunch in Old Town. Any where that is nicer but wouldn't bother other patrons to have a baby with us? Just a note, one of us has always left the restaurant if she ever acts up, so we aren't looking for a place where she can run crazy.

You sound like considerate diners. Check out Hummingbird, for a light-filled dining room and seafood-focused menu, or Vermilion, near the Metro station, for the always-interesting cooking of Tom Cardarelli. His ever-changing, hand-shaped pastas are especially good. 

Hey Tom, not much of a question but I wanted to mention an amazing meal last week in Stockholm at Michelin- starred Agrikultur. The restaurant specializes in the hyper-local - in fact the menu changes based on what the Head Chef Filip Fastén happens to get in his weekly hunting trips- and sitting at the Chef's Table near the open hearth was a real experience. The highlights were definitely the grated reindeer heart on white moss and the King Crab (wild caught that morning) served on smoking Juniper sprigs. For a couple of young professionals that read about DC's fine dining scene in your chats more than we can afford to eat in them, it was definitely a splurge but it was vacation, right? Definitely a memorable meal and highly recommended for any of your readers that find themselves in Sweden anytime soon.

Thanks for sending us such an enticing "postcard" this morning. Here's more on what sounds like a delightful journey. 

I used to love brunch, but now I definitely prefer dinner: More options, and an opportunity to make is as fancy or not fancy as you wish. Do you have a favorite meal time, and if so, has that preference changed over the years? And, why do you prefer it?

Fun question. I  like dinner the most, probably because it tends to be more leisurely; I don't have to go back to work afterwards; and (let's be honest)  I can imbibe. But increasingly, I tend to prefer lunch to dinner with regard to fancy meals -- tasting menus and the like -- because I hate going to bed feeling stuffed. Lunch gives me an opportunity to work off a splurge  with a walk or a trip to the gym afterwards.

As a manager, I have also been summoned by customers who have sliced into the edge of their steak and think it's overcooked, when in fact the center of the steak is correct. However I don't think a server interrupting the first few bites to make everyone approve their steak temp is the way to go.

Then your suggestion is for a customer to slice into the center unprompted and wave over a waiter if there's a problem?

Not saying that this was the problem with the Bresca poster, but as a server you wouldn't believe how many diners try to send back "raw" pork because it's pink inside. People...pork is now safe (and far more delicious) to eat at a lovely pink 145 degrees.

I prefer pink to gray myself. Dry pork is the worst.

What are some of your go to Caribbean stops in DC?

Of late, I've been enjoying my meals at Spark at Engine Co. 12, which takes its name from the fire station the space used to be. Spark's chef, Peter Prime, hails from Trinidad and puts out finger lickin' good jerk chicken wings, spiced beef patties and soy-sauced whole red snapper, among other crowd-pleasers. 

Just popping in to sing some praises for Poca Madre!!!!!! 4 of us went last night for a birthday dinner, and it was a wonderful experience all around! The service was impeccable: our server was so knowledgeable, recommended dishes that lived up to our high expectations (after reading your review!), and was perfectly attentive (making sure our friend who guzzles through water always had her glass full) without being overbearing or pushy. The manager came over to check on us several times, and so kind and willing to take the time to take our group photo (we don't get together much) for us even when the restaurant was crowded. And oh sweet lord, the food was AMAZING. The shrimp ceviche was so interesting and was served like pasta. It was so fresh, light but also somehow rich. The octopus was my favorite: fried, served on a sauce that reminded me of peanut butter (in a good way). The fried chicken was also a hit, and the large serving that was perfect for sharing. The risotto and hamachi ceviche was fantastic. We ordered 5 dishes for 4 people, which was filling and not too heavy. Our wonderful server also brought out a celebratory dessert and tiny glasses of champagne at the end of the meal, which was so, so generous and unexpected. Overall, the staff went above and beyond to make us feel special which completely elevated the already amazing food. We would have recommended this restaurant already, but the impeccable service really pushed me to write this and tell anyone who will make eye contact with this morning to go here ASAP.

No publicist could have written a better rave. Count me a fan of the novel Mexican restaurant from Victor Albisu, too.

Hi Tom, I enjoy reading these chats each week when I have a minute on Wednesdays (live or afterwards). Thank you for your time and responses! I've seen few recommendations from the past month or so that are in Virginia. Is there anywhere in NoVa that's satisfied expectations recently? The only criteria is it can't be in Alexandria - I've picked up on your fondness for Hummingbird!

I spend more time dining outside DC than some readers think I do. Stay tuned for a couple reviews of destination restaurants in R County. Closer to Washington, I've recently had some fine lunches and dinners at Elephant Jumps (Thai) and Fava Pot (Egyptian), both in Falls Church. 

Server was polite; no problem there. It's just that it completely stops everything and--this most recent time--I was listening to someone at the table telling a story (we were a party of 6), and everything had to stop for me to put down my wine, pick up knife and fork, and saw away. The waiter was standing there, five people were waiting, and I was performance art. Cutting in to food to eat it is one thing; cutting in to inspect and then report is another. Why is steak the only thing they're worried about? Sides? Starters? I get that steak is cooked to order, but isn't everything about the customers' preference? In any case, I do believe that I found it more unacceptable than most, and I promise to chill out. :)

Thanks for clarifying. I sympathize with your situation. Servers really need to practice "reading" a table so they aren't constantly stepping on punch lines or interrupting stories. The problem seems to be getting worse.

The same applies to salmon--much more delicious when pink in the center instead of opaque

As a former resident of Seattle, which knows from salmon, I am on your bandwagon.

No, I don't recommend that either. If a customer has a problem with a temperature, the server should be nearby and ready to address it as needed. In addition, a server should stop by a few minutes after entrees are delivered and be sure everyone is happy with their meals. The first few moments of a customer getting their meal is the time where each guest should savor their dinner, have a look and a smell, and tuck in. Not follow the instructions of a server as directed by a chef or a manager.

Gotcha. Thanks for following up.

Hi Tom, Since my husband and I found out I was pregnant, we've been trying to go to as many non-baby friendly restaurants as possible. The baby is due any day, I'm thinking of taking myself to Little Serow. My husband doesn't like spicy food and I love it. I'm also now on maternity leave so I have the time to wait in line. Is Little Serow solo diner friendly? Or should I try to find a friend to join? Also, any other restaurants with extra spicy dishes to recommend?

By all means, use the extra time you have to explore one of my favorite dining experiences in the city. The staff at Little Serow will likely direct you to the counter, and make you feel like you're a regular, even if it's your maiden meal.  True story: The last solo diner I encountered there was no less than Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington

Good morning, Tom! I've seen a lot of readers come through asking for anniversary recommendations and you've always given fantastic suggestions; however, those suggestions (often by readers' request and not lack of conscientiousness) tend to be at around a $100-200/person budget. If my partner and myself are hoping to have a special night for our anniversary in a couple weeks but need to hover closer to a $50/person budget, where might you recommend? We love all cuisines, but are particularly partial towards all manners of Asian; neighborhood does not matter, but would prefer it to be in the DC area. I hope you might be able to help us! Thank you for doing this every week.

Happy to help make yours a delicious and affordable anniversary. High on my list of recommendations would be Kyirisan on Eighth St. NW for the angular setting and scallops fanned out on coconut rice; Maketto on H St. NE for dumplings, steam buns and terrific Asian salads; and Little Pearl on the Hill, for "angel eggs," great drinks and a a glass-wrapped cafe that overlooks historical grounds. 

Hi, Tom. I love these chats and read along every week. Can you use you bully pulpit to urge the restaurants participating in Alexandria Restaurant Week to post their special menus online? So far I've only been able to find a couple menus. I want to make some reservations but I want to know what I'm getting before I do so! I'm pretty good with a google search and despite my best efforts, my searches have revealed few of the special menus. Thanks!

Happy to publish your plea. Fingers crossed, it reaches the offending restaurants, and they react. I can't imagine why participating businesses wouldn't want to promote the very thing they're selling. 

Be prepared that if old wives tales are to be believed, the food may be spicy enough to bring out your baby!

That thought crossed my mind as I addressed the question, too.

Hi Tom - I've gotten such great advice from you over the years, I'm happy to share info for the reader looking for recommendations in Vienna. Lowbrow - go to the Naschmarkt - not for the restaurants, but to sample tasty treats from all over and try the wurstelstands across the city. Nice places? ef16 Restaurant Weinbar, Paul Restaurant Brasserie and finally, Die Metzgerei. The last one is off the beaten path and outside the normal tourist area, but completely worth the trip. Prost!

The Vienna-bound chatters thank you.

Any recommendations for a birthday lunch for two? My husband's got a big birthday coming up, but this year we want just the two of us, taking the day off work, enjoying a long leisurely lunch. Husband's dream is a great bottle of wine, unrushed service, and dessert (which he would ordinarily never eat). Only problem is, the birthday is on a Monday, when plenty of restaurants -- if they do lunch at all -- don't have a lunch service. Any thoughts on something special? Husband is a big fan of French cuisine but we hardly get to eat it. Le Diplomate and Chez Billy Sud would be great, but no Monday lunch. Del Mar isn't French, but same deal. Maybe Blue Duck, if it's up to par these days? (Would rather stay away from the downtown corporate lunch options like DBGB and Central, where we've both attended too many work events to count.)

I know I've been singing its praises a lot lately, but Centrolina in CityCenter tends to be my go-to place when I'm looking for style, service and memorable food during the day. Rasika West End makes a glam impression by day, too, especially if you're seated in one of those roomy carriage-shaped booths by the window.

It's hard to find on the site, but the menus are actually in a "book"...here's the link: https://view.joomag.com/2018-summer-restaurant-week-2018-summer-restaurant-week/0944581001532450794?short

Reader to the rescue!

I have reservations for Blue Duck soon. How are they these days? I've never been, but I know it at least used to be a favorite of yours. Any particular stand out dishes that you can recall?

Honestly, I haven't been hearing positive reports from the hotel restaurant of late. You might want to reconsider your choice. (There are a lot.)

Apparently Loudoun County is getting into the act, but they have a web page that is totally useless. It's not for another week, but it seems to me if you want to promote something like this you need to promote it. I wouldn't have known about it except I'm on the mailing list of the one of the sponsors, and I live out that way, so I would actually be interest. Instead, so far I'll probably ignore it.

Ouch. I hope a few restaurants learn a few lessons today. As in, don't make customers work to find you.

Hi Tom, thank you for hosting such insightful chats each week! Two friends and I are going out for our first Ethiopian meal tonight and have no clue what to order - can you help? One is vegetarian, one loves spicy, but we're all pretty open to trying new dishes. What would you recommend?

Where in the DMV are you? Every Ethiopian restaurant I've visited offers a vegetarian sampler, typically a kaleidoscope of spiced lentils, cabbage, collards, tomato salad spiked with jalapenos and more. Spring for the combination, inevitably one of my favorite dishes. The hot head in the group should order the Ethiopian version of steak tartare called kitfo: minced beef shot through with fire and lush with clarified butter. 

Yesterday, I went to a restaurant and when I walked in, my first thought was, it is hot in here. I mentioned it to the staff and they said something about the AC leaking. They had the ceiling fans going to move the air a bit. I did see a tub on the floor under one of the vents where it must have been leaking. I should have left, but I didn't. I finished as quickly as possible and was soaked with sweat when I left. As I was leaving, I wondered what I would have done if service was slow. How do you tell a waiter that you have to go without eating or risk a heat stroke.

"I'm sorry, but the temperature is so uncomfortable, I know I won't be able to enjoy my meal here."

I can't believe you missed Thai X-ng, especially since OP asked for Asian cuisine!

Actually, my last meal there -- with members of the Thai embassy in tow -- was a blur of sad cooking.

Tom, Wondering how you evaluate intriguing restaurants that push the envelope in terms of ingredients and technique, but may not serve the most delicious food. I'm thinking about our recent meal at highly regarded Central in Lima, Peru. Fascinating dishes, but none were so good that I can't wait to order again. And some were fun science experiments and/or great photos, but truly not tasty. Thanks.

I try to consider a restaurant both on its terms (what it wants to accomplish, its stated theme) and the usual demands of diners (physical comfort, a sense of deliciousness). I wonder if Central, which I reviewed six years ago, has changed course. Because my memories of the dining destination were more than palatable.

 

That's a wrap for this week, folks. Please join me again next week, same time, for another back and forth.

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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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