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

Sep 09, 2015

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Tom, I cannot consider going to restaurants where I would be required to wait in line for a substantial period of time. Due to a bad fall, I am moderately disabled and cannot stand for prolonged periods. I suspect this rules out going to places like Little Serow or Rose's Luxury. Do you have any suggestions? My world will not end if I miss these particular places. It saddens me more for others, to be honest. Thank you, Tom. I love your reviews and chats.

You have my sympathies. But there are ways to get around standing in line, or for making the wait for a table more comfortable. One strategy is to pay someone for the trouble (using services such as Task Rabbit). Another is to ease your wait in one of those collapsible chairs, which I've seen fellow diners do at restaurants that don't take reservations. 

 

Good morning, gang. I'm back from more than a week in the Big Apple, and racing to finish my fall dining guide, which comes out next month but is due next week. As such, I won't be hosting a live chat Sept. 16, but I will try to pre-address any questions you send me ahead of time. 

 

Let's begin.

Hi, have any recommendations for 14th Street restaurants, besides Le Diplomat? Thanks.

Sure thing: Estadio for Spanish, Etto for pizza, G by Mike Isabella for set-price dinners, Posto for Italian and Tico for Latin American small plates.

Hi Tom! Last year my husband and I enjoyed a fantastic dinner at Charleston in Baltimore MD. The food was delicious but what really made the evening special was their sommelier taking extra time with us. He really went above and beyond - answering our questions, making suggestions, and even walking us through an impromptu tasting! It was one of the most entertaining and fascinating nights out we've ever had! Can you recommend other restaurants in the DC or Baltimore areas where the somm may be available to offer a similar level of service and expertise? Also do you have any advice on how to get face to face time with the sommelier? We've been to many nice restaurants that have a house sommelier but this was the first time one ever made the trip to our table. Do you just ask the server to send the somm over?

Restaurants that don't employ full-time sommeliers tend to have someone on staff who can assist you with making wine choices. Either way, all you need to do is ask a waiter to send someone knowledgable your way. It's that easy.

 

In Washington, the Grill Room in Georgetown and Plume in the Jefferson hotel benefit mightily from the grape advice dispensed by sommeliers Keith Goldston and Jennifer Knowles, respectively. And part of the fun of dropping in at the Red Hen in Bloomingdale for pasta is a chance to taste whatever co-owner Sebastian Zutant is buying for his list.

I've been a huge fan of your series discussing some of the continental United State's best food city (No love for Anchorage? Ha!). Seriously, when are you going to just come out and say that NYC is the best of the best when it comes to dining out? The term professional comes to mind when I think of that city. I've been to some but not all of the cities you visited but none of them in my experience can compare whatsoever to NYC. The 5 boroughs, the diversity of culture from the local deli to some of the best restaurants in the world there is no place like in the US and only a handful in the world. I've got nothing but love for our local dining scene here but whenever I go to NYC, I'm just left awed with all of the different possibilities. So can you just save us the suspense and say NYC is still the top city?

I'm still digesting my 30 + meals from NY and have several more cities to check out before I rank the markets I've visited this year. I will share a surprise with you, though: some popular NY brands, including a few four-star restaurants, seem to be cooking in place (or worse).  And quantity (sheer number of places to eat) doesn't necessarily beget quality.

Hi Tom, In addition to saying thanks once again for all of your great comments and suggestions, I wondered if you have any thoughts on this one. Since restaurants pay to use OpenTable, do any of them actually look through the reviews people take time to provide? My reason for asking is that after posting a comment a few days ago about a very disappointing dish (one specific ingredient was to blame), I noticed that another reviewer had made a similar comment days earlier. When something isn't egregious enough to single out management, is there a chance the problem will ever be noticed if it turns up in more than one OpenTable review? Thanks!

I'm certain most restaurants pay attention to how they're reviewed by guests online (or will be, after this post). But I have no idea how often, or when, the feedback is read. Once a day? Once a week? Every month? In other words, similar complaints filed within a few days of each other might not be seen when you think they are. (Alternately, there's always the possibility a chef doesn't think his dish is a mistake. )

 

Restaurants, feel free to weigh in on the matter.

Tom, I know you've championed the cause of complete (and clear, and music-less!) information on restaurant websites. I'm taking a family member out for a nice thank-you meal, and he very much wants to go to Mastro's (he's a meat-&-potatoes guy). I went to the website to get a sense of what else they offer besides steak, because I'm not a big meat eater---and there was no menu to be found! I emailed the DC location to ask about a menu but never heard back. Besides omitting location, not including a menu is one of the dumbest omissions I can think of. We're still going because that's where my guest wants to go, but I'm going in with kind of a resentful attitude already, and if it were my choice, I'd go elsewhere.

 Actually, Mastro's does publish its menu online. Here's the link. Irritatingly, though, the choices aren't accompanied by prices!  Which is like not posting hours of operation or an address.

 

 My recent review should provide you with some non-meat ideas for a meal.

Hi Tom, What should I do at a restaurant when there is a hair in my food? I understand that it happens and shouldn't be that big a deal, and I'd rather not go through the rigamarole of having a new dish sent out. But, it is off-putting and pretty gross. This has happened at a few reputable local restaurants recently. I am certain that the hair is not mine (due to color, length differences etc.).

  You say finding hair in your food upsets you but you don't want to ask for a replacement. So, which bothers you more?

 

  At the least, you should let a waiter know about your discovery and hope the kitchen sends out a little something -- a salad or appetizer of your choice -- while you wait to have the dish redone.  (Or not. Your call.)

My trip to Memphis is coming up quick! Maybe the chatters have suggestions if you haven't been in awhile (or ever)?

I've never been. Chatters? 

Hi Tom, your recommendation that any complaints be directed to the manager during the meal, and not afterwards, is a good one. But what if you're there on business with work associates? The only time I've ever considered complaining was a meal at Tabard Inn a couple years ago, when I was eating out with work partners. I was disappointed that my goat cheese ravioli entree was only 3 tiny pieces, while everyone else had ordered the risotto and had heaping servings. (And I think the ravioli, despite its small size, was more expensive than the risotto!) But since I was there for work, and was the only one affected, I felt it would be awkward to complain in front of everyone. Any recommendations for discreetly complaining in such a situation?

 Sure. Excuse yourself from the table, ask to speak to a manager in private and share your complaint. 

I was pleased to see that Edward Lee is opening his first restaurant outside of Louisville here, even if it is in the food desert of National Harbor. He seems like an intelligent and creative chef when I've seen him on television. I hope he's able to succeed here! Have you made plans to visit his place?

If I did, I wouldn't share my plans online!

Hello, Tom- It is pretty transparent how OpenTable allows diners to give feedback on restaurants, but what about the other way around? Has anyone ever looked in to how/what type of information restaurants can put in to an individual diner's record?

 Can any restaurants out there fill us in on the ways they can track or review customers?

I just wanted to say that Rose's was worth my wait. Even on a Thursday (it was great weather too) I was third at 230PM, although the two in front of me appeared to be doing it for pay. Great service, amazing food, wonderful space. I really liked that they have set it up so you can either eat immediately or have them take your number and get a later seating. Have you ever eaten at the bar Tom? It does sound like it would be worthwhile to do that from time to time.

I've only eaten in Rose's two ground-floor dining rooms, my favorite of which is the garden-like setting in the rear. But those stools facing the kitchen, also on street level, look like a lot of fun! 

Really enjoy your column --- and especially enjoyed your review of New Orleans. We go there every spring to enjoy food and cocktails and were pleased to see that we have visited every place you reviewed. I was curious why you omitted Commander's Palace, especially lunch in the Garden Room with their 25-cent martinis and excellent turtle soup. And we had always thought Cure was a local's bar, sort of run-down and unknown to most, but that served some of the town's best cocktails. Glad to see it's made the "big time".

I had a week to eat and drink and shop as much as I could in New Orleans, and I tried to report on a range of  restaurants (old and new), bars, shops and markets. I could have easily run a list just of the classics, but I had to pick representatives that reflected modern movements on the scene, too. No, Commander's Palace wasn't part of this trip. But Galatoire's and Brennan's were! 

Corky's for barbeque, Belmont Grill for the best fried catfish.

Reader to the rescue!

The Memphis food scene is exploding right now. Other than the obvious barbecue, here are a few favorites: For brunch: Brother Juniper's For fine dining: Restaurant Iris, Paulette's Casual: Gus's Fried Chicken (the absolute best!!)

Good work. Thanks.

I am a healthy eater, but have a weak spot for onion rings -- the inch-thick variety vs. the skinny version. Where is it worth the splurge in DC?

On the casual end, I gravitate to the Goliath buttermilk-battered onion rings at the al fresco Garden District on 14th St. NW. Among expense-account establishments, I'm partial to the golden bracelets made with a beer-infused tempura batter at Del Frisco's Double Eagle steakhouse in CityCenter.

Interested in your take on the latest rash of restaurant closings in the DC area. It seems like too many good chefs/restaurants are going out of business lately (Cooper, Landrum, O'Grady, et al). Wondering if: A) This is a product of people not going out to eat as much (i.e. the economy), B) The fact that real estate (i.e. rents) are just too darn expensive to keep these restaurants open, or maybe C) All of the above.

Or D) the bar in Washington has been raised and diners expect restaurants to keep up with the times.

 

Did that sound too flip? I didn't mean for it to be. Rising real estate prices are certainly a factor in some closings, but I continue to see packed dining rooms wherever I go. This is a city flush with people with the means (or the will) to eat out on a regular basis.

I took my husband to the Riggsby for his birthday. The cocktails were superb, the service impeccable, and the food was amazing. All in all it was a fabulous night out.

That sounds like the place I previewed. Thanks for the feedback.

Hi Tom; first-time/long-time here. I recently saw something at a local restaurant that I haven't seen before and am wondering if you might verify how normal this might be. I was seated near a server work station and over the course of an hour, observed that whenever a table paid in cash, the server took the money and swiped his own card for the bill. This happened at least a half-dozen times, including for my own bill. At first I was perplexed, but then realized that the server was earning bonus points on his peronsal card for on each transaction. I don't really see anything wrong with this, and in fact credit to him for creativity, but is this a regular practice in your experience? Thank you.

 I rarely pay in cash and this is the first I've heard of a waiter using his own card to "pay" for others' meals. If I had more time to mull this over, I'm sure I could identify an issue. I wonder, does the guy's employer know he's doing this?

Without giving too much away, can you let us know any tidbits about what we can expect from the Fall Dining Guide this year? How will it be different from last year's?

 For starters, I expect the many changes on the dining scene this year to lead to a different mix of Top 10 favorites. And some of the usual suspects won't make it in following recent chef (or other significant) changes.

My fiance and I are getting married in October-- we're having a relatively low-key wedding followed by a nice dinner afterwards for around 15 people. We're looking for a place in Dupont Circle, Georgetown, or Woodley Park. What would you recommend?

(Um, you're just now planning this?) Fingers crossed, one of the following restaurants might have room for your party: Riggsby in Dupont, New Heights in Woodley Park, Fiola Mare in Georgetown, Ardeo + Bardeo in Cleveland Park. Good luck.

While Corky's and the Rendezvous are probably the most famous, the best barbecue in the city can be found at Central, The Bar-B-Q Shop and Cozy Corner.

Thanks for weighing in with a week's worth of good cue possibilities.

Dean from Din's Grotto Open Table lets the restaurant store comments/notes on a diners profile. Comments/notes can be made re a specific reservation (ie these comments will not appear when the diner dines again: we use these when diners request a special dish, or have appetizers waiting on the table, or proposing to significant other celebrating an anniversary/birthday etc) Diners can also add a note to the reservation such as birthday or one of the diners is gluten free. Its also a good spot to give a heads up for allergies. But if you make a last minute reservation, the restaurant may not be able to adjust to the request. And this is not a good way to let a restaurant know that he reservation you just made for 4 also included 2 toddlers.... the restaurant may not have room for 6. If you need 6 places at the table, no matter how small the diner, please make a reservation for 6! Notes can also be attached to the diner's record and show up on every reservation (one of the pair is vegetarian, they love Sicilian wines, they hate table 2 etc). Here is where a restaurant might record things like these diners are habitually 30 minutes late or they cancel at the last minute etc. If the restaurant is part of a group owned by a single company, then they can share these comments across their own restaurants. There is no way one restaurant can read any comments about diners from non related restaurants.

 Interesting. And useful. Thanks for chiming in.

Are you sure he was swiping a credit card and not a card for the POS system? Servers have to have a code to be able to enter their orders into the system. The POS system always shows what tables the server has and what the guests have ordered. Some restaurants issue a personal swipe card rather than a code to their servers.

Ah, good point.

Why don't you care for John Besh's restaurants? He was the Iron Chef runner-up to Michael Symon, you know.

Huh? I visited several Besh properties, including Shaya, the contemporary Israeli restaurant. 

have a much needed date night out next week with my wife. What is your favorite good food and fun place to eat right now?

On the Hill, I'm a fan of chef Rob Weland's American fare at Garrison; in the West End, I appreciate the buzz and modern Indian cooking at Rasika West End.

I agree with Tom that one can always request the assistance of a wine buyer or sommelier. As a waiter, though, I always appreciated when a guest asked if I was familiar with the wine list, instead of assuming I wasn't. Lots of servers love wine! As far as OpenTable, I would like to think most managers keep track of the reviews posted there. I certainly did, even as a server. To keep track of guests, it obviously depends on the establishment, but there is a way to enter notes, either about the guest or the reservation. I doubt the feature is used consistently, but if something notable happened (really late, rudeness, bad tippers, or good stuff like they were really nice!) that might be noted.

Is anyone else out there now curious about how restaurants view them? ( I can imagine mine: "Prefers booths. Likes cool-to-the-touch red wine. Grimaces when you ask, 'Is everything delicious?' ")

So...Inn @ Little Washington, Rose's Luxury and eight others...yawn.

Someone needs to take a chill pill ...

I second Brother Junipers for breakfast or brunch. Overall I was extremely disappointed with Memphis food when I spent a week there earlier this summer- I tried to do my research, and also relied on my local friends for recommendations, and it was meh. The Peabody is fun for a cocktail and to see the duckwalk. The top of the BassPro pyramid is a good place to watch the sun set. BBQ is a safe bet in lots of places. But don't expect to be blown away by any of it. Except Br.Junipers- that place is legit.

So, Memphis is *not* a contender for my Best American Food Cities series?

Tom, is there a particular cuisine you think is missing from the DC landscape?

Off the top of my head, I wish we had more (or better) West African, Swedish, delicatessen, Italian-American and regional Chinese restaurants. 

The ones at District Chophouse are enormous and very good.

Yes!

We went, and I was pretty disappointed. Everything we ate was over-the-top salty. It is so depressing that lovely ingredients are rendered one-flavored by the addition of too much salt. Yes, we noted this, and we were told we were wrong and the dishes were "to chef's standards". Won't be going back.

The waiter actually said, "You're wrong?" I find that hard to believe. But I do know chefs who believe they are serving food seasoned correctly and would prefer customers not to reach for the salt shaker.

I admit we don't get out like we used to (Kids etc) but the last few times my husband and I have gone out for a "nice" dinner service has been either inattentive (Majestic Cafe) or completely MIA (Green Pig). Have you noticed a downward trend in service?

Restaurants have my sympathies. Good talent -- waiters, cooks, hosts -- are in short supply and  restaurants keep opening!  Poaching, it turns out, is not relegated to Africa or the high seas ...

 

And on that note, I bid you all a delicious rest of the week. I'll endeavor to pre-address whatever EARLY questions I get ahead of Sept. 16. Thanks for joining me today.

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

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

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