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

Aug 29, 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 - I was recently at two restaurants (frequently recommended by you) where the waiters - without having been asked - began reading us the ENTIRE menu. Both times it was 5 very awkward minutes that me and my companion sat there while the waiter explained every dish to us and we waited for them to finish so we could return to our conversation. I appreciate their enthusiasm and didn't want to be rude, but I am quite capable of reading the menu on my own, and if I was curious about a dish I would just ask. Is there a polite way to interrupt them and tell them that we don't need the whole menu recited to us?? Thanks.

The pain! The agony! Unless a menu is written in a foreign language, or starts with desserts and ends with appetizers (see: Brothers and Sisters, at least early on), servers shouldn't feel the need to read aloud. There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and far between. Most diners go out to chillax, not to be transported back to kindergarten and story time.

 

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me for another round of restaurant talk.  Good news/bad news today: Three Blacksmiths in Sperryville, the subject of today's First Bite column, is awesome. Dinner is one seating, served three nights a week, by the husband-and-wife owners and two other cooks.

 

Lovely. 

 

Far less so: La Vie, the sprawling new Mediterranean restaurant on the Wharf. La Vie, for which I've posted a check list of what NOT to do in a restaurant, is the subject of my Dining column in the Magazine this Sunday.  It's also a member of an unfortunate club, only the third restaurant to which I've given no stars. 

 

Let's rock 'n' rock. What's bugging/exciting you on the scene?

Hi Tom - Several months ago you helped a reader find a buyer for Minibar tickets. I know this is outside the real scope of your chat, but I could also use some assistance if you have any thoughts. A friend bought four tickets to dine at the chef’s counter at Minibar on September 8 (6pm seating). Although my friend and her husband will be using their tickets, my partner and I can no longer use ours. There was a recent death in my family and the memorial gathering, which is out of state, has been scheduled for Sept. 8 as well. I posted the tickets, which cost us $715 for the pair—including service charge and tax—on Chowhound’s DC forum (per the suggestion of one of your readers) and also emailed Minibar this morning. But, given the tight(ish) turnaround, I’m wondering if you have any other ideas to find a buyer - I have to imagine someone would want to dine at Minibar on a Saturday evening!  Thanks so much, A loyal reader (who will wait to try Minibar another time)

So sorry for your loss, but I'm happy to spread the word about available tickets to one of the most extraordinary dining experiences in the country. Should anyone be interested, I have the poster's contact info. 

I appreciate your review. It's good to know where *not* to go in addition to knowing where to go.

Which is precisely why I wrote about it. Had La Vie been a mom and pop, less expensive, or in a remote location, I would have simply asked for hardship pay and called it a day.

My folks are in town for Labor Day weekend and we may take them to Annapolis for the day. Do you have any suggestions for lunch and dinner downtown?

 For lunch, try Preserve, for chicken and noodles or a banh mi.  My hands-down favorite for dinner is Flamant, the charming, bungalow-style outpost featuring the imaginative cooking of chef-owner Frederik De Pue. Save room for dessert, and hope there's clafoutis.

I’m not sure if this is a better question for you or Carolyn Hax, but what do you think the appropriate response is if you find yourself at a dinner party and one or more of your dining companions makes offensive comments? In my case, I was at a birthday dinner out this past weekend as a second-tier guest (my partner is friends with the birthday person) and I didn’t know anyone else at the dinner. The table was exclusively white, privileged adults. One of the guests, admittedly from another country with different cultural norms, made offensive comments and impersonations of Asian people to general laughter, followed later by comments about Jews, followed by another person at the table making a comment about the DMV having the worst service at restaurants in America, “you know, because of the type of servers that are here.” In a perfect world, and if I were brave enough, I would have called out the comments as racist and unacceptable, and maybe I would have if I sensed outrage from the rest of the table, but besides a look between a partner and myself, not one seemed to raise an eyebrow. While I wanted to stand-up and leave, I chose to sit quietly and finish the meal, which tasted good despite the bad taste in my mouth. We left as soon as dinner was over and passed on the post-dinner revelry with the rest of the group. At the intersection of polite manners and good deeds, what does one do? Re-reading this now before I send it, the letter reeks of white privilege and I hope the response is that I should have said, “I’m sorry, but I think that comment was unacceptable, and I hope that we can change the subject.” Then, if the behavior continued, excusing ourselves with a simple, “We’ll settle our portion with the server, but need to leave now.”

Whoo boy, that's tough. Or maybe not. Had you delivered the rebuttal lingering in your cloud thought, you probably wouldn’t be writing to me now. I can understand your concern; silence implies agreement, after all.

 

A question for you to ponder: Why didn’t your significant other (or anyone else) pipe up? The birthday guest could have/should have shut down such ugly talk immediately, given that the occasion was in his honor. 

 

We recently returned to Le Diplomate to celebrate our anniversary after not having been for about 2 years. We decided to go for our anniversary because our previous visit was excellent - both food and service. For this visit, both food and service were subpar. I ordered the lamb dish, which (as is clearly identified on the menu) is supposed to come with gnocchi. The dish comes out overcooked (I asked for medium, it was well done) and there was no gnocchi on the plate. I immediately told the waiter about both issues, he took the dish away and said a new one would be out. Not wanting my husband's food to get cold, I told him to eat. By the time my new plate came out, which was then undercooked but had the gnocchi, my husband was finished. So, we essentially spent our anniversary waiting separately for us to each finish our meals. The (I assume) manager came around asking how things were - to which we said, they were okay, he asked why just okay? Forgetting that I had to send my dish back, he then remembered and said dessert would be on the house (which we didn't even really want at that point) - waiter brings us dessert menus but then rather than asking us what we want he suddenly takes the dessert menus away and brings us an item we wouldn't have picked for ourselves. The waiter by that point had also become extremely inattentive. Also, we had indicated it was an anniversary on the reservation but this wasn't acknowledged, meanwhile a ton of birthdays were being celebrated around us. All in all, a very subpar visit compared to our first time there and put a bit of a damper on our celebratory mood, and I was very surprised that something would come out of their kitchen with an entire item missing from the plate!

Wow. Lots of slip-ups there, and lots of blame to go around.  Dessert on the house really doesn't cut it in this case: too little, too late.

 

A more pro-active manager might have said, "I'm sorry for the lapses tonight, and we really want to make you happy, especially on such a big occasion." Then, he could have offered up ideas for righting the multiple wrongs. "Is there something we can offer -- a drink, a discount or a gift certificate -- as a token apology?"

Hi Tom, I recently moved to Dallas from DC. Everything truly does seem bigger in Texas and there are SO many restaurants, it's impossible to try them all. What are some of your favorite spots? Any quiet, romantic date night recommendations? And preferably Dallas proper, getting to the suburbs is tough with traffic. Thank you!

I haven't eaten in Dallas in years. Best to check out the recommendations of Michalene Busico, the new voice at the Dallas Morning News. Her Twitter handle is @MichaleneB.

Hi Tom, Just wanted to thank you for talking up Mi Vida and Chloe. Went to Mi Vida for restaurant week, which is a great value by the way. It's the family-style tasting menu at a restaurant week price. Brought some veterans who have been stationed over-seas in Asia and they loved the second floor outdoor seating I insisted on for great views of the Wharf, and the Mexican flavors were something they haven't had in awhile. Went to Chloe for my birthday dinner and it's definitely my favorite restaurant in DC right now. Every dish we shared was a hit. I don't know how it wasn't packed on a Friday night and their HH is awesome for anyone who doesn't want to commit to a full dinner. I'm still thinking about the cauliflower and the gnocchi. Bonus is that my BF surprised me with a reservation to the Inn at Little Washington for my bday present, so going there on Friday. I cannot wait! Thanks for all you do!

You are on a ROLL, gurl!

Hi Tom, Thanks for your chat! My brother and his wife are visiting next week from S.F. They are big foodies and in the past, they've enjoyed Rose's Luxury, Ray's the Steaks, Fiola Mare, and Kapnos. I've been traveling for the past 3 months, so I have no idea where to take them. I tried Maydan but reservations are impossible. They eat everything...any ideas?

Open-minded siblings = Good times in DC. I'd introduce them to restaurants that the Bay Area doesn't offer (much of), places such as Rasika West End and Poca Madre, for modern Indian and contemporary Mexican, respectively. 

Hi Tom, Love your column and respect your recommendations! I just read your article regarding La Vie... so disappointing to hear. I was planning on taking my mother and my 8 friends out to dinner on a Friday night at the end of September-- but now going to look somewhere else. Any recommendations for my mother to take a bunch of young, broke 20 somethings to dinner? We love trying new restaurants in DC, so excited to have a parent treat us all. There will be 10 of us, so a larger party. We want a fun atmosphere, and my mom has been dying to see the Wharf, but open to other areas in DC. Thank you so much!

I think Kaliwa counts as "fun," and certainly easier on your mom's wallet than, say, Del Mar. I very much like both waterfront restaurants, to be clear. 

Dear Tom, I belong to a gardening organization which is hosting a multi-state conference here in the DC area in the fall of 2019. We want a keynote speaker on Farm to Table dining who would inspire our 175+ audience. Could you suggest a few restauranteurs who would be a draw in this area, and possibly beyond? Thanks, Wholesome Foodie

Your initial calls should be to Jeremiah Langhorne of the Dabney and Spike Gjerde of A Rake's Progress, two Washington restaurants that set the bar for local sourcing. 

loved your review. thank you for posting it. did you warn the management that it was coming?

I fact-checked the column, as I do with all my reviews, with a very helpful publicist. 

Occasionally a restaurant will confirm a reservation and say something to the effect that the dining time is for a specified length of time (90 minutes, for example). I can see why they might do that, as it avoids having people camp out. If I'm on time for the reservation, but the restaurant is late seating me -- say 15 minutes rather than just a couple minutes -- am I unreasonable in asking that the "length of dining time" be extended? I got pushback from a restaurant but insisted as it wasn't my fault I was seated late. To be fair this wasn't in DC but could apply here.

If you're punctual and the restaurant has fallen behind schedule -- for whatever reason -- I think you're still entitled to the 90 minutes established by the reservationist. 

This line in your review of La Vie made me laugh. However, unless all the servers have top knots and weird facial hair, I wouldn't assume the restaurant wants to be "woke".

I was specially referencing (plastic) straws there. 

I've heard this often...is it true that dessert items usually cost restaurants next to nothing (assuming there is not dedicated pastry chef) and that they are usually designed to be a cash grab? If so, it really irks me that restaurants frequently use "free dessert" as their token of apology when something goes wrong. When my meal is completely messed up, I don't want an unsolicited dessert, thanks!

I wouldn't necessary consider desserts cheap, even in restaurants that don't have dedicated pastry chefs. There are some lovely, sophisticated finales out there. But since dessert is typically the last course, I can see why restaurants hoping to right a wrong might offer such (especially in a case where appetizers and entrees have been consumed). 

Based on a tip from one of your readers in a prior chat, I held a small celebration dinner at Pearl Dive at their chef's table. It was such a fun experience and the food and service were excellent. It's such fun the community that you've built on this chat and it really benefits so many people.

I love my chatters! Thanks for giving them a well-deserved pat on the back. I learn a lot from this forum. 

A server who asks whether you want the appetizers before the entrees?! Where did the management find these people, in line at a contruction site?

Yeah, and you had to be there, but the questions were asked in such a slow and deliberate fashion, I looked around the room to see if there were hidden cameras and I was being punked. 

Has there ever been a whiter sentence than your comment in the La Vie review that “A woke restaurant offers paper or reusable metal [straws].” When did the standard for “wokeness” become virtue signaling through one’s choice of straws, especially given the flimsy basis for the anti-plastic straw bandwagon in the first place?

Aw, come on. I was having some fun there. #lightenupplease

I enjoyed the interesting snark today - it has to be interesting and appropriate and it was! But ... you lost me at the straws. I am not here to get into the straws debate, it does not interest me. Rather, my complaint is that you have a review with a list of weighty, important criticisms, and in the middle of that list is ... the material the straws are made of. No, just no.

I pointed out the restaurant's use of plastic straws as one of many, MANY details -- big and little -- La Vie needs to rethink. 

Hi Tom, thanks for doing these chats! We have family coming to visit this fall from Colorado and as former Maryland residents have specifically requested to eat as much seafood and crab that they don't get fresh out there while on the east coast. I had thought of the Wharf or Fiola Mare, but what other options would you recommend for us to take them to get their fix (regardless of budget) for either lunches or dinner?

The Salt Line has what you're looking for: local flavor on the plate (crab cakes, coddies) and in the design (nautical but not Disney). Be sure to book in advance; the location and cooking make it a popular destination.

I saw last week you discussed a pescatarian week at Little Serow. Do they ever throw any love in the direction of vegetarians who don't eat meat or fish? I'd love to experience their food! Thanks, Tom!

I honestly don't see that happening at my favorite Thai outpost. It's challenging to do the menu justice without such flavor boosts as shrimp paste and the like. 

I had a drink at the bar there and agree with you on how it looks and price point, and while I can't speak to the food I'll take your word. But your complaint about plastic straws is bizarre. Some of your favorite restaurants also have them - I didn't see you highlight this in other reviews.

See above. 

I haven't had that experience, just the daily specials. Sometimes the specials list will just say, "Grilled Tuna" and the waiter goes into much more detail about how it is seasoned, grilled, and the side dishes. I often wonder why they don't put the extra details on the card that lists the specials. I can more quickly process information visually and read more about the dishes that interest me and skip reading the ones I don't want.

If there are more than two or three specials, it behooves a restaurant to print them out -- with prices. When I get a lengthy recitation of dishes, all I seem to remember are the first special, the one with the ingredient I love, maybe the last. 

Hi Tom! I am a huge fan from Minnesota and I am looking forward to my trip to DC in November so I can eat at restaurants I have been reading about. I am going to be in DC for a conference in the Wardman/Woodley Park area (I think? That is what Google Maps says anyway). I am a grad student, so I need to eat pretty cheap, probably around $20 for lunch (I am splurging for a birthday dinner at Jaleo while I am there, so excited!). There is about an hour built in for lunch. Any recommendations?

Regular readers know I'm not a fan of most of the restaurants in Woodley Park, but if you just have an hour to spare, and you want to remain in the neighborhood, your best bet is probably Lebanese Taverna for Middle Eastern fare. The room is beautiful; the food, ever since the family-run chain expanded too quickly, is OK at best the days. 

We also emailed the restaurant about our experience, but have not heard anything back as of yet (since Monday).

Helloooooooooooo, Le Diplomate! 

Is there a reason why restaurants don't print the daily specials and provide them as a menu insert? Instead, the waiter describe them in detail. I find by the end of several items, I have trouble remembering what is what. And the price is rarely mentioned which, at least for me, is a relevant consideration.

See above. You are preaching to the choir. 

Tom - You should know how responsive and helpful Minibar was. Having read my email (and perhaps this chat?) this morning, the concierge already reached out to me with a solution regarding the 9/8 dinner tickets I can’t use. For any readers who may be interested in them, those two tickets should be posted on Tock (on Minibar’s website) soon. I defer to you whether to post this, but wanted you to know that Minibar saved the day! Thanks again.

Now THAT'S four-star service! 

This topic drives me nuts. As someone who truly needs a straw to drink. Plastic is far and away the best option. There are so many places where there is far more waste in a restaurant. Judging "wokeness" based on this alone, will only encourage less accessibility . If you want to add environmental practices to your reviews, then do so. But to pick this one area is shortsighted and harmful. I am delighted when a restaurant offers me a plastic straw. Better yet if it is compostable.

Duly noted. Lots of you seem to hate my pointing out straws as a problem at La Vie. But folks, it's ONE sentence in a column with hundreds. Let's consider the matter closed for today. 

I think it's in bad taste to name the waitress in the picture on a review that makes fun of the server. One would assume it was her, and I'm not sure what gives you the right to publicly name her and mock her. Have some class, Tom.

Why would you assume the server is the one I referenced? (It wasn't, by the way.) It's WP practice to name identifiable faces in most of our photographs. 

Hi - just moved from Arlington to Rockville and am stumped on where to go - both for everyday "I just don't want to cook or do dishes" as well as nicer meals. Any suggestions?

Two places that have impressed me most of late in Rockville are Il Pizzico for dressy Italian and Kuya Ja for excellent Filipino cooking. The latter, a small storefront that does great things with pork in particular, does a brisk carry-out service. 

Hi Tom, As a former server (now retired!) with many years of experience, I have high expectations for eating out, esp at all the amazing places we have to eat in this city. However I find myself underwhelmed with the details of a my experiences. Ordering a glass of bubbly and getingt something having been poured roughly and quickly by the bartender, and therefore missing half of its carbonation; ordering a glass of red wine and having it be from a three day old bottle; having to listen to the bartender's/managers iPod soundtrack of music at a volume that makes it hard to notice anything about the atmosphere EXCEPT the music; I often want to bring ALL these things up to my server, but having to do that frequently just becomes a tiring task, and i end up thinking "maybe I should just eat at home, so I can control all of these small things." Do you have a threshold for what rises to "bring it to the attention of the server" while you just let other things go? Should I be less picky? Do you have a limit of the number of things you bring up to a server during a meal? I ask this as a server who prided himself of every detail of my work, so maybe my expectations as a result are just unreasonably high and I need to loosen up (though that's hard to do for $13 glass of wine!) Thanks Tom, and any other viewers who might have some advice on this...

Great post.  (And thank you for your service." Something tells me you were an attentive waiter.)

 

As a critic, I'm in a slightly different position than civilians, in that I can write up my rants for public consumption,  and hope a restaurant addresses the issues.

 

  Sometimes I raise a concern in a restaurant, sometimes I don't. It all depends.  But a consumer should *always* bring problems to the attention of someone who can deal with them, and in the present rather than the future, when it's sometimes too late.  One, you're doing yourself a favor (say, volume lowered). Two, you might be helping future diners (volume stays lowered). 

Chatters harping about straws are missing the point it was a- a small moment of levity and b-not that big a deal good lord

Bless you.

This. In this day & age of cheap printers with excellent card stock and choice of fonts, there's no excuse.

Uh huh. Couldn't agree more. 

As a 50 something suburbanite, I learn something new each week. This week, two things: 1) where not to go to lunch, and 2) Woke. I had never heard of the hip definition. Now that I have a greater awareness, I shall totally misuse the word to embarrass my 16 yo.

You just made my day. For real. 

I just read your "La Vie" review and I'm still laughing, although not really. Nice to be warned off a terrible place. My question: When you write a zero stars review, do you ever hear from the owner/chef/manager? Do they ever call to try to "explain" things, or promise things will get better, whatever? If so, do you ever go back, in six months or so, to see if things have improved?

Like I said in my introduction to the review, I try to go in with an open mind. And I'm constantly checking up on previously reviewed restaurants, to see how they're performing. I'd be willing to return to La Vie, for instance, but not for a long time. There are simply too many other places vying for my attention, you know?

 

Sometimes I hear from restaurants that get mediocre reviews, other times, I don't hear a peep (sometimes because they close).  In recent years, I had some interesting phone chats with the owner of Founding Farmers after my review. 

Looking at a restaurant website, I noticed the hours were listed as "5pm-close." While I realize that gives them some flexibility to shutter early if it is slow, it also makes it more likely they'll be slow - I know I wouldn't try to go there after 9pm. Seriously, folks. Make it easy to find info on your websites and to patronize your establishment!

Yeah, I agree "til close" is unhelpful. Better to offer a conservative close time -- and surprise/delight diners who find it open later than expected.  

Waiter here chiming in. I don't speak for all, but sometimes our establishments want us to interact with our tables that way. Perhaps the practice of describing the dishes elevate us *insert appropriate emoticon*… These days it's becoming challenging - a lot more customers are often talking amongst themselves (try 15 minutes of "we haven't looked at the menu") or constantly looking at their phones even while we are trying to get any kind of response to our questions, even an important query for allergies.

You have my sympathy, for sure. Your job has changed a zillion ways in just the last five years or so, primarily due to technology and diners' lack of focus.

 

Maybe tables should be set with little markers, like in the Brazilian meat restaurants. "Green" signals "bring it on." Red transmits "stop/busy/full." Just a thought.

Tom, do you think La Vie will actually get an increase in business, with people who want to see if it's REALLY that bad? Also, screw that place. I got denied at the door a few weeks ago because of their dress code. It was 95 degrees. I took my money elsewhere.

They have a dress code?! It sure didn't look like on most of my visits ... 

I have been stuck in that wasteland for work for years, and can happily recommend Iron Age - Korean BBQ.

Thanks for adding to the list. 

I just visited Dallas a couple weeks ago, and some of my favourite places were Bowen House (romantic setting for cocktails and a light dinner), Tipsy Alchemist (reminds me of PX in Alexandria), and Rise (a charmingly Parisian soufflé restaurant). I'd recommend any of those!

Reader to the rescue! 

Tom, love your work. Just a heads up as a restaurant manager - switching to eco-friendly straws might not be so easy for everyone! Every disposable distributor I contracted recently was out, and one wasn’t guaranteeing stock until 2020. Just a heads up!

Thank you for posting. And duly noted. But I found it strange that of all the many restaurants, at different price points, I've eaten at in recent weeks,  La Vie was the only one still serving plastic straws. 

"Where did the management find these people, in line at a contruction site?"

Sorry, I should have caught that. My apologies. #weloveconstructioncrews

Also try Vin909. Had a lovely lunch there recently. http://vin909.com/

I second that opinion.

Actually I like the idea of a table-side way to communicate with restaurant servers! It's already in-place at the Toyota Museum restaurant in Nagoya: you summon service by pressing a button. Really.

What a great idea! 

So there's this place at the Wharf, La Vie. Any good?

At least the water is cold!

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Thanks for keeping me company. Let's do it again, after Labor Day. Be safe, eat well, play nice. 

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: