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

Aug 22, 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 - We absolutely love your reviews and chats - thanks for doing this each week. My husband and I are headed to Metier this Saturday (yay!), and I'm pregnant (also yay!). I've noticed that their menu has just two mocktails on it. I can imagine many scenarios in which I'd like more than two drinks over the course of the evening (especially while watching my husband drink his wine pairing). If I do end up wanting more than two drinks, is it rude of me to ask if they can create a third mocktail? I'm not too picky with my tastes, but would love some variety if it wouldn't be too difficult for the bar. Thanks!

Bar tenders are accustomed to whipping up other than the cocktails featured on their menus, so I have to think the shakers and stirrers at Metier have more than two non-alcoholic drinks up their sleeves.  But be pro-active and call the restaurant ahead of time (a day or so) to state your wish. You'll have the peace of mind that your experience will be every bit as memorable as your SO's.  

 

You are in for a treat, by the way.

 

For this Sunday's review, I headed to Rappahannock County for a taste of the new Blue Door Kitchen & Inn in Flint Hill. The former chef of Villa Mozart in Fairfax City, Andrea Pace, is at the helm. He's doing some good work, although it's not quite on par with what I recall at the late Italian restaurant.

 

What's own your mind today? Type to me.

I feel like something I struggle with is knowing how to order properly. I get so excited about going to new restaurants and then often stare enviously at the dishes of other diners. I was curious how you decide what to order when you go out. Do you stick with bases that you enjoy and find different preparations? Do you look at which have the most interesting flavors? Any enlightenment here is helpful!

On a review, I try to select a range of dishes that show off different cooking techniques -- grilled items, fried things, anything baked in-house -- as well as preparations that the chef considers to be his or her signatures.

 

But I'll be honest, it's not always what's on the center of the plate that grabs my attention. I'm a sucker for interesting side dishes and tend to gravitate to certain ingredients: almonds, goat cheese, lemon and caramel are among my weaknesses.

 

Also, anything offbeat or unexpected calls to me, say, a Korean dish on a French menu. There's usually a good back story tucked therein.

 

Chatters, how do *you* like to order? Share away.

I am helping a friend plan a small birthday dinner in September. She has requested a restaurant in DC(preferably Georgetown), near water or nice place to walk around after, not too expensive ($20-$40 entrees). Are there any new, exciting, or just good restaurants that fit those criteria? Thanks as always for all of your time and sharing your expertise.

I have yet to try it out, but Dyllan's Raw Bar Grill sounds interesting. The newcomer has the seafood focus you want, and a Georgetown location (the former Sea Catch) overlooking the C & O canal.  Fish entrees run from $21 to $34. 

Tom, I ate here recently for only the second time and I have to say this place (for our group) generally isn't a destination to which I'd return again. It all works on paper, but in reality, not so much. You start by waiting in this cramped, standing room only lobby and you aren't allowed to grab a drink at the bar (which is, strangely, only for dinner). I get that they have a cramped space to begin with, but standing around in the picture window waiting for your table or the remainder of your party, clustered with 10 others, isn't exactly a comfy start, notwithstanding the complementary fizzy beverage. Food begins with courses each comprising, more or less, a tablespoon of food. With a jumble of exotic ingredients that are recited to you at such speed as if it were a 30 second Super Bowl ad slot, you hardly can discern what you are eating. And then all of a sudden, dessert! With caramel sauce and sprinkles and ice cream and caviar. Then back to protein and later more dessert. What? So weird...and not in that creative, good kind of way. Nearly none of it is hearty. And missing is the feeling that you've eaten anything memorable. The beverage pairings had a few nice drinks (particularly the Garden Daiqari (rum, carreau and arrack), but all the wines served were weak (all short on both the front end and the finish). Yes, many seemed rare, and made in limited quantities and editions, but all fell flat with little by way of length, complexity or just plain tastiness. And, by the end, you've experienced so many different kinds of wine, alcohol and cocktail ingredients, you nearly feel like tossing it all up. At the end, we received the obligatory parting gifts and printed menus that now come with many high-end meals. Strangely, we got an unbaked single chocolate chip cookie, with a chocolate chip cookie recipe that reads, well, like a simple chocolate chip cookie recipe: butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, baking soda, salt, choco chips. Really? What is the point of including the recipe...it isn't a reinvention of the wheel. And what's with an unbaked treat? Am I supposed to go home and now bake a single cookie? All just a bit of an odd choice. This restaurant needs less exotica, less shark, less Fonzie and a good deal more focus. When I look back on this meal the word "interesting" comes to mind. But there wasn't one drink that had me reaching for another glass and there wasn't one food item that had me thinking, geez, if I just had another bite or plate of that.

While I'm sorry to read this field report, of a restaurant I've heaped praise on in the past, I have to hand it to you: Terrific post. It's full of rich details and makes me feel as if I'm there with you, sharing your disappointment. Thanks for taking the time to write and fingers crossed, Pineapple and Pearls takes to heart your findings.

My husband and I just moved back to DC after living in the SF Bay Area for almost 5 years. So much has changed since our departure in 2013. His 45th birthday is coming up...any suggestions? His tastes are adventurous but he shies away from tapas and chef tasting menus. We live in DC and would prefer to stay in DC. Thanks for all of your advice over the years!

Gosh, there have been so many notable openings of good places to eat since you left. But let me throw out a few clear favorites, which would include Sfoglina for Italian, Field & Main if you're up for a drive in the country, Le Diplomate for traditional French cooking and Del Mar on the Wharf for Spanish.

We had a reservation at Kinship over the weekend and excitedly showed up a few minutes early as I'd been wanting to eat there for a long time. Unfortunately, a sign on the door indicated that the restaurant had a water leak and would not be able to provide any service that evening. Disappointing, but makes sense. We were a tad surprised we hadn't gotten a cancellation from Open Table for our reservation, but a chef came out to speak to us and to give us recommendations. I didn't need one (thanks to you!) and quickly took my visiting family to Tiger Fork nearby. It was fantastic, and their "no reservations" policy actually helped us since it was prime time on a Saturday night! Anyway, just wanted to give you and Tiger Fork a shout out, and send some public thanks to the chef for coming out to apologize and try to help us out!

Yay, Tiger Fork and yay, Eric Ziebold!

It depends on the circumstances. I can be a real stick-in-the-mud when it comes to a favorite dish I might have only once or twice a year, but if we are out with friends who like to share, we all make a point of ordering different dishes so we can sample the maximum variety.

A group after my own heart. Believe it or not, there are people out there who do not like to share. #sad

Hi. You always steer folks to great options. Any recommendations for somewhere in Atlanta, staying near Buckhead area. A vegetarian option or place that serves good vegetarian food would be great. Thanks so much.

For your answer, I reached out to my buddy Bill Addison, the national critic for Eater, who used to call Atlanta home. He texts, "Buckhead is the epicenter of Atlanta's steakhouse culture (it makes sense, since the area is a city stronghold of wealth and power) so vegetarian options aren't easy to find." For something upscale, however, he recommends Kyma, "arguably the finest Greek restaurant in the Southeast," with plenty of meat-free options, and Cafe Agora, an affordable Turkish establishment with a wonderful mezze platter. 

Good morning, Tom! As always, thanks for hosting. Heading to Las Vegas next month to celebrate a wedding anniversary - could you recommend your favorite "splurge" restaurant (and maybe a few less-precious options)? Open to any cuisine except maybe molecular gastronomy (husband would not be entertained). Your most recent Vegas postcard that I could find was about Jose Andres' places, and while I love the guy, I'd like to try some restaurants that are completely unique to Sin City. Thanks in advance!

Perfect timing. I was just out in Vegas, where the best meals I had were OFF the Strip: Pizzeria Monzu for Italian street food and Yui Edomae Sushi for omakase ("chef's choice"). I'll be writing about them for the travel issue of the Magazine on Sept. 9.

Guilty, at least when it comes to dessert. When I was a kid and would order dessert at dinner at a restaurant, the adults (parents and grandparents) would insist that I pass my dessert around so everyone could have a bite *before* I could even try it. Almost none of the adults would order dessert because they were perpetually "on a diet:. By the time it got back to me, over half my dessert was gone! I think I have some sort of dessert-sharing trauma to work through.

A question for Carolyn Hax! You have my sympathy, however. What kid (or adult, for that matter) wants his dessert passed around before he gets to try it himself? No fair!

My fiance and I are headed to the Riviera Maya next week for a much-needed vacation and birthday celebration. We scored reservations at Arca and will also be taking a cooking class. Would love recommendations on any other (moderately priced) restaurants in Tulum/Akumal that we shouldn't miss. We are especially looking for places with good mole!

When I was down there last year, to review the Noma pop-up, locals steered me to the very good, eco-conscious Hartwood.  I recall local fish cooked over an open fire and dining beneath the stars. Bliss. 

As a socially conscious diner, how do you approach restaurants whose founder is a sexual harrasser? It can be difficult to tell whether the accused person is still involved with the restaurant. Specifically, I'm planning a trip to New Orleans in October. I'd love to eat at August, but not if it means supporting John Besh in any way.

There are so many choice tables in New Orleans, among the best food cities in the country, you can easily forgo August -- never a favorite of mine, for the record, even before the allegations against its chef and others).  If it's upscale dining you're looking for, book a table at Clancy's or Brennans, among other destinations.

Tom -- I visited several restaurants this week during RAMW Restaurant Week and had several EXCELLENT experiences. Rare's Tavern, Filomena, Rasika West End, Del Frisco's Double Eagle, and Ocean Prime were absolutely fantastic. Terrific value. However, I wanted to share with you and your readers the one restaurant that didn't impress. Frankly, it was the worst restaurant experience I've had in the DMV. Morton's in Arlington was nearly empty on a Tuesday evening. Once we were seated, the waiter came over and greeted us in the most professional and friendly way. All was good, until we requested the Restaurant Week menu. Once we did that, everything changed. The waiter's demeanor underwent a complete 180. I could literally read his mind: "There goes my tip!" The first course (soup for me, salad for the wife) was small and and completely underwhelming. But little did I know I would need that food to hold me over for the next 50 minutes as we waited for our entree. Once it came out, things got even worse: My pork chop was raw. My wife's salmon had a very strange flavor. The mounds of mashed potatoes were chunky and cold. Management came over and noticed we hadn't touched our food. I politely shared that we had been waiting nearly an hour for our entree, and it came out nearly raw. The manager couldn't have been nicer, and comp'ed our entire meal. She even put our desserts in a to-go bag (they got the dessert order wrong too, as we would find out at home). As we left, the waiter shot my wife a nasty look. I nice way to top off the evening. I can't complain about a free meal, but I can complain about wasted time and rude service. I remember growing up when Morton's was a real treat. A place you would go when you were celebrating a very big occasion. It has now transformed into a dimly-lit pit for expense accounts and terrible steaks.

Somebody at Morton's in Arlington is going to have a bad day. Thanks for sharing. As much as I get out and about, readers are my eyes and ears.

Hi, Tom. I'm back on a low-carb diet and am trying to be more flexible than in the past. I've yet to go out to eat since recommitting and am wondering if there's anything I need to know about restaurant expectations for dieters. Will pretty much anyplace know how to accommodate me if I say I'm watching what I eat? I see lots of catering to the no-gluten crowd on menus, but for those of us watching carbs and who need to be careful about flour-based sauces and hidden carbs, do we need to educate wait staff, or are they pretty much on the ball after all these years of low-carb dieting?

I guess it depends on where you eat, although even the chain restaurants are pretty good about accommodating dieters, something I discovered on my tour of national spots last year. Obvious candidates for your back-to-real-life meals should include sashimi, ceviche and vegetable-focused restaurants including the fabulous Fancy Radish.

Thanks to your mention of LS last week, I took a look at their website. As a long time pescatarian, I thought I would never be able to eat there. It turns out, they were in the middle of an all fish/seafood week, so I went and lined up on Thursday. What a revelation! I think it was the coconut milk soup that really made me pause - it's on so many menus (and I really haven't ordered it in years), but this version was so complex and delicious. Apparently they do this several times a year, so keep an eye out for their special menu!

Yep, they call the seafood menu "golden mermaid." I'm still dreaming about the mud crab, served in a coconut shell. (I was in line on Saturday.)

I'm surprised, because I thought RW menus replaced the regular menus for the week.

Not everywhere. Some restaurants, bless 'em,  give diners an option between regular and promotional menus during RW.

I generally prefer not to order several dishes to share -- but it's not because I'm averse to sharing my food, per se. The problem is that I'm kind of picky -- some (popular) foods I just plain dislike, due either to taste or to texture -- so I generally won't want the dishes that other people enjoy. That means I end up sharing my food but getting little or nothing in return, leaving me hungry and with more than a fair share of the bill. But I am happy to share if I know there will be a number of other things that I do like. It all depends on the group, the occasion, the cuisine, and the negotiation.

Fair points.

Count me in on that as well. Whenever I see something on a menu that just...does not belong, I order it and it's typically fantastic. Two that come to mind are the specials from the owner's native country at a neighborhood place with an otherwise American menu, and a tuna reuben sandwich at another place. Plus pretty much anything by Jose Andres.

Some of the best "unexpected" food I've had in restaurants over the years have been dishes that originated as staff meals and proved so popular in private, the chef decided to make them available to paying customers.

I tend to order things I can't (or won't) make myself. This, paradoxically, leads to me avoiding some of my favorites-- carbonara, roasted chicken, a nice steak.

I can't recall the last time I grilled a steak at home. Steak is one of those things I leave to restaurants with purchasing power (truly prime beef rocks), aging rooms (give me dry-aged, please) and super-hot grills.

Hi Tom, I've been desperate for pasta like I had on my Italy honeymoon. Where do you recommend for the best, authentic pasta experience in DC?

Right now, some of the best pasta is coming out of the kitchens of Centrolina in CityCenter and San Lorenzo in Shaw.

Hi! I'm an incoming student at the SFS who's looking at prominent alumni. I was wondering, how do you feel your SFS experience affected your work or inspired you to be who you are today?

I can't say enough about the value of a Jesuit education or the students I met during my years in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown (although I sometimes felt like a minority student, being from the Midwest and Methodist vs. the East Coast and Catholic. *) Between school and my internships (I helped book guests on "Good Morning America"), I grew to love Washington, too. 

 

* Kidding. Sort of.

Tom - any suggestions for mid-priced restaurants in San Francisco, or Bay-area sources that can help me find ideas? I already have your "best food cities" story which is helpful. Thanks.

I've got two words of advice for you: Che Fico, which I reviewed in today's Food section. You might have to get in line to eat there, but if any restaurant is worth it, this one is.

I don't like sharing because invariably someone in my group (usually my family) thinks nothing of sticking a utensil that they just had in their mount back into the shared food. Not may more disgusting things IMHO.

A socialite once told me she didn't like to pass plates because "by the time it gets back to me, I've got four people's saliva in it."

Have you checked out the tasting menu resto out in Sperryville yet?

Indeed I have. My preview goes online Friday.

It's not a stereotype if it's true. And not all stereotypes are bad.

While I had lived abroad before college, nothing prepared me for Georgetown (the money! the famous kids! staff helping students move in and unpack!) I learned that rich kids never had cash on them and the shoes to order at Britch's, the preppiest of stores back in the day, were TOP-SIDERS, not "side-toppers." #guilty!

Steakhouses. I cook a pretty mean steak, but sometimes there's nothing like an old-fashioned steakhouse experience, complete with Martinis and a traditional shrimp cocktail!

And creamed spinach, don't forget. And hash browns. And popovers. And ...

Saw you made it to Che Fico! Were you also able to eat at Birdsong?

Yes. It was strange and expensive. (You're not the chef's mom, are you?)

to the chatter asking about NOLA... was there last week and had the most wonderful meals at Brennan's, Herbsaint, and Commander's Palace. No need to visit Restaurant August when there are so many other tasty places around

Thanks for the show of support. Another great memory from my lat visit: Friday lunch on the ground floor at Galatoire's.

Hi Tom, It was probably 5 years ago, but I still have wonderful memories of Lotus Siam Thai Restaurant in Las Vegas. It was one of those memorable food experiences, can't recommend it enough if its still going strong!

Everyone likes that place more than I do. It's FINE.

We are sharers, but the person who ordered the plate always gets first bite! No wonder you got turned off to sharing.

Great idea!

Hi Tom, duck is usually my go-to when eating at a traditional restaurant and I see it on the menu. Other than Peking duck, are there any renditions that stand out in the area?

In recent months, I've enjoyed a fan of duck breast over a bed of chard with juicy cherries at Marcel's in the West End and very good duck with kumquats at Vermilion in Old Town Alexandria.

 

That's a wrap for today, folks. Let's do this again next week, same time. Thanks for joining me.

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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