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

Sep 20, 2017

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.

Quick Question - would you go to Voltaggio Brothers or Fish? Enjoy both steak and fish so that doesn't help narrow it down. Sorry to read about Marcus but appreciate the warning. Thanks for all you do!

That's a tough call, since I've received a fair number of complaints lately about the inferior service at Fish by Jose Andres. Right this moment, my inclination is to send you to the Voltaggio Brothers, where I suggest you order the oysters Rockfeller with aerated spinach, hanger steak or branzino for a main course and some cheddar cheese biscuits. 

 

The subject of last week's review, Marcus, is good for only a few things, mostly dishes to share such as the whole "yardbird."  I was not surprised to read where Marcus Samuelsson opened a second branch of his Harlem haunt, Red Rooster, in London this spring.  (Can anyone say overextended?)

 

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me for another hour of food talk. It's good to be back in the host seat and REALLY good to be finished with the fall dining guide, which debuts in print Oct. 15 and earlier online. 

 

If you're drinking this week, make sure it's a rummy Painkiller and be sure it's made by one of the 20  + Washington area establishments raising money for hurricane Irma relief. Here's more on the worthy fund-raiser, from my colleague Fritz Hahn

 

Last but far from least, my review of the glam Mirabelle went live earlier this morning. I welcome your thoughts. It was a tough review to write, in part because I view chef Frank Ruta as one of the city's top chefs.

 

What's on your mind this morning? Bring on the rants and raves. I may have to cut out early this morning, so send me your questions pronto.

Hi Tom, Can you help with a birthday dinner spot on Capitol Hill/Riverfront? Any cuisine, any price (besides P&P). We've done Salt Line (despite your review, we were unimpressed), Rose's, Ambar, Acqua al 2. Anything new that you'd recommend?

You didn't care for Salt Line? Do tell! What transpired? It's among my favorite new restaurants. (And the view!)

 

Along the waterfront, I'd point you to Osteria Morini with the caveat that some of the kitchen principals have left since my last visit there.  On the Hill, for something different, consider Garrison, which devotes some nice real estate to vegetables.

Hi Tom, I started by googling "Tom Sietsema Woodley Park" and one of the first hits includes "dispiriting" which always sums up my reaction to dining in that area. That being said, a group of convention-goers needs a place for a birthday dinner celebration of 8-10 people in the Woodley/Cleveland Park area. With the closing of Ripple, my first (and so far only) thought was Bindaas. Am I missing anything? Thanks!

The contemporary American Ardeo in Cleveland Park has what you need: space for a group and reliable food with lots of choices.

Hi, Tom, I look forward to this chat every week. But, I live in Austin, TX, and read with great interest about the folks paying others to stand in line for those reservationless restaurants. Our most infamous line here in Austin is the one for Franklin BBQ. Aaron Franklin said 'no' to the paid line holders. He basically said if you want my food, you can stand in line for yourself. Now, it's not a typical line. It includes camp chairs and coolers and even live music on occasion. I believe Mr. Franklin decided no one should have an advantage. Other restaurants in town have followed suit. Sadly, Franklin's had a fire a couple of weeks ago so is currently closed. We hope to see it open again in a few weeks.

While I appreciate the owner's sentiment, a lot of people can't stand for a long time for whatever reason. I know this because other-abled diners, seniors and busy parents -- among other readers -- tell me so every time I write about a no-reservations restaurant.  I'm curious how  Franklin Barbecue enforces its policy? 

Last weekend I ate steak at Mastro's. I ordered my steak medium rare, but the restaurant served the steak on a 400 degree plate, which over the course of the meal continued cooking my steak until it was well-done. I get that steakhouses might want to entice the senses with the sound and smell of sizzling butter, but it overcooks the steak. I'd rather have a steak that stays medium rare. Do steakhouses think diners prefer to hear sizzling butter over a properly cooked steak?

The sputter of the butter and fat triggers an appetite for a lot of us. The easy solution here would have been for you to ask, "Could I please get an unheated plate? I don't want my steak cooked any more than it is." 

I'm a freshman in college who left DC for a college in a relatively rural area with no really good restaurants under an hour away. I'm the daughter of parents who met at culinary school, and a mom who always tries to get through your whole dining guide every year, so I know and love good food, and am in desperate need of some. I'll be back for a weekend in October, and wanted to ask your opinion on where I should go for dinner with my parents, so, if you only had two nights in DC, where would you go?

For an Asian night market experience, there's no more delicious destination in Washington than Hong Kong-inspired  Tiger Fork in Blagden Alley. Be sure to order the barbecue platter. You should spend the next dinner at Sfgolina, where the pastas are made from scratch and the plush dining room allows for easy conversation. 

In response to the person trying to find a location for his or her mom's 75th birthday: I highly recommend Bazin's on Church in Vienna, VA (http://www.bazinsonchurch.com/). They have a separate room called Bazin's Next Door for private events. My husband and I had our rehearsal dinner there on the night before our wedding last year. Everything was wonderful - the food and drinks, the service, and the ambiance. They were also great about accommodating the food allergies of some of our guests.

Thank you for the recommendation. 

I was at a very fine dining establishment about two weeks ago. Delicious dinner, wine, dessert - until I woke up at 1:00 in the morning with a case of food poisoning. The next day I was out of town so shot an email to an address from the restaurant website telling them of the incident and exactly what I had eaten, along with my contact information. I have not heard anything from them. Did I handle this properly or should I have been more aggressive? What should a patron expect from a restaurant after an expensive dinner that while delicious, made them sick and ruined the experience?

Food poisoning is such a hard thing to confirm. Are you positive  your illness came from the restaurant you ate in last? Or could it have been from jet lag or an even earlier meal? Food poisoning can be sneaky and not show up immediately.

 

At any rate, the restaurant failed by not following up with you in prompt fashion. Always best to call and get the name of a manager in these types of situations. That way, at least you are dealing with a person in charge and not having your issue get lost in some black hole. 

At what point does it become the responsibility of a restaurant to remove something from the bill? I've never thought something should be comped simply because the diner didn't enjoy it, but a couple times recently I've had situations where there was something legitimately wrong with the food (including what appeared to be a small stick in a spring roll's filling) and pointed them out, half expecting not to see them on the bill at the end of the meal. I didn't bother asking for them to be removed, because neither occurrence resulted in any real harm, but where is the line as you see it?

It really depends on the seriousness of the mistake and the diner's reaction to it. A chipped glass where no one gets hurt? That doesn't qualify for a gratis drink. Chipped stemware with bits of glass in the drink? That calls for a free replacement. See the difference? 

I am looking for a nice restaurant for a romantic dinner to celebrate my husband's birthday. We live in the Northern Virginia suburbs and would like to stay out here, but I'm having trouble finding somewhere that is special and delicious but not overly fancy. We are expecting a baby soon so I'd prefer that it not be too formal dress-wise as I won't have anything appropriate to wear. No major dietary restrictions. Thank you!

You don't specify where you live, so I'll throw out two places and hope one is near you: Nostos for modern Greek in Tysons Corner and Villa Mozart for lovely Italian in Fairfax. Both are suitable for date night, but not overly fussy. 

I was over near Foggy Bottom recently and saw that a new Bindaas is going in over there. Any word on when its opening and how it might differ from the original location?

Owner Ashok Bajaj tells me the second branch of his original Indian street food establishment is expected to open the last week of October. The spinoff, at 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW,  will have several new categories -- "road" curries, sandwiches -- and offer lunch as well as dinner.

Hi Tom, my wife and I are going to Charleston restaurant in Baltimore to celebrate our 20th anniversary this weekend. Any recommendations or suggestions for our visit? Thanks!

Here, from my last dining guide, are a few ideas from my spring visit to one of the best restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic.

Real food poisoning usually doesn't show up until 12-24 hours later...probably wasn't the dinner, unless you had raw oysters, which can sometimes work much faster.

So true about oysters! The only time I've had food poisoning was from bad bivalves, in Alexandria and Seoul. (At first, I thought I was going to die. Then, I *wanted* to die.)

Hi Tom, Do you have any recommendations for a pre-show dinner near the National Theater next month? If you have multiple recommendations, that would help with discussions with the guests. Thanks!

Try Tadich Grill for a classic taste of San Francisco (love the sand dabs) or the more innovative Central Michel Richard, which has a pre-theater menu for $37.50.

(Not the OP) I had Sunday lunch/brunch there with a friend a couple weeks ago--my second visit and her third--and we agreed that, while the food is good, the service is unbearably slow.

Thanks for the feedback. I'll take slowly delivered good cooking over the opposite any day.

I went once, and I found the bouillabaisse disappointing. The broth seemed like watered down tomato paste. To me, the food at Grill Room was spectacular. Ruta knows how to pack a lot of flavor into a pasta dish. Having enjoyed both Palena and Grill Room, I simply didn't recognize the cooking when I ate at Mirabelle.

My sentiment, too! Some of the food simply didn't taste Ruta-esque: soulful, in other words. And the last time I ate there, there was lots of vegetable repetition on the main courses.

So....what do you think of the Nobu? Personally I think it looks like a hotel bar/lounge

Odd location for a Big Deal Restaurant, right? And from the outside, the lowered window shades give the facade the appearance of being closed -- or something other than a restaurant. Has anyone been yet?

My San Francisco daughter arrived in town today for work and had but a brief time to meet me for dinner. We chose Bindaas. Our reservation (made online) was for 6:15pm. At approx. 7:30 after asking for the approx. $70.00 check we were told to finish up as there were other reservations behind us. How would you have handled this? The interaction ruined/shortened the end of our time together as we felt rushed out, even as I knew it was wrong ( this is not a fast food restaurant after all) and I shouldn't have let it get to me. After my daughter left I went back and told the manager. He said he was sorry and that I should come back and it wouldn't happen again. Somehow this didn't sit well with me. I 've always liked your very factual non-emotional analysis. You're the Carolyn Hax of the restaurant/dining world! Thanks, Candice

Hi Candace. Sorry you got the rush job at Bindaas. Honestly, though, 75 minutes is a fair amount of time for two people to eat Indian street food. I can see where you'd be put off by the manager's request. A smoother move from the manage would have been something along the lines of  "We're pretty busy tonight. May I invite you to a drink at our sister restaurant, just behind the curtain?"

Although the trend in restaurants seems to be small plates, I see more and more restaurants offering the shareable, family-style sized entrees to feet 2-4 people, but in looking at the prices, these dishes always appear to be bad deals and very overpriced, relative to the size of the dish or the restaurant's other smaller entrees. Also, do you think it is reasonable to ask restaurants to serve a solo diner a smaller portion of a family style entree, or is that not realistic? I know Rose's Luxury does this, and they are the rare restaurant whose family style meal doesn't seem overpriced given the portion size.

Those increasingly common big plates (see: Arroz and Marcus) are designed for two or more, but it never hurts to ask if they can be modified for one. Don't get your hopes up, though, at least not for every plus-size entrees such as whole grilled fish or fried chicken.

How are tips split among the various staffers, such as wait staff, dishwashers, bartenders, etc.?

It varies among restaurants. Some establishments pool gratuities, others don't. Some places share tips with the kitchen, other's refrain.

Would you recommend a well-lit, quiet restaurant in the vicinity of Penn Quarter, especially suitable for a(n omnivorous) solo diner?

You're asking for a lot there: good lighting, serenity *and* quality cooking -- in one of the hottest restaurant zones in DC?

 

But I digress. The place you want to take yourself is 701 near the Navy Memorial, where I recently enjoyed, among other dishes, a chilled corn soup with a clutch of pink shrimp. What made it pop, so to speak, were kernels that had been pickled. (Bryan Moscatello is the new chef at the American supper club, by the way.)

On a trip out of state, looking for restaurants online--and the last two I have looked at post their menus but NO prices! This is so annoying. Why would a restaurant do this? I know prices change, but couldn't they just note that prices are subject to change. Why would someone make a reservation if they had no idea what the price of a meal would be? I can't remember running into this in the D.C. area, but it is very off-putting. Is this a common practice, or just sloppiness on the part of the restaurants?

Withholding prices is like omitting address and phone number: Why would you send a customer to a competitor?

Tom, what would you say the best "fine dining" French restaurant is in the area? I was hoping Mirabelle was going to be that restaurant but it seems like they dropped dropped the ball a bit...

Marcel's in the West End strikes me as the leader of the pack, certainly for anyone looking for more classical French dining.

My 8 year old has moved from wanting to be a YouTube star to being a food critic. What advice do you have for a budding critic?

Rule No. 1: Don't do anything just to became famous! Do it because you love it and want to make a difference.

 

Seriously, the advice I give to budding food scribes includes eating as widely as possible, traveling as much as your budget will allow, taking cooking classes and writing in a journal or (better yet) a blog or print publication, even if it's just a community newsletter. Also, find a mentor, someone who's work you admire and who might take the take to read and edit your reviews.

This is a small item in the scheme of things, but, while I have thankfully seen fewer annoyingly complex web sites that take forever to get to the actual information, I hate it when clicking on "Menu" makes you open a PDF. That's what a web manager is for -- to put up a proper web page without extra clicks that make you download something.

Uh huh.

Depends on how much they are making and how much effort they put into their jobs. As a former server I would never work in a restaurant that pools tips. Way to socialist for me and it encourages mediocre service. Also I want to tip out the folks who make the effort when I worked not the lazy good for nothing.

Thanks for weighing in.

I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised, at your review of Mirabelle. Our one experience there was superb -- the "Veal Oscar," which you call a "classic," was in fact a deconstructed and reconstructed version (not a pounded piece of sauteed veal topped with crabmeat and asparagus, but a slow roasted, fall-apart-at-the-touch-of-a-fork veal shoulder topped with a crab mousse). But the bill -- egads! We're fortunate enough to afford splurges like Mirabelle, but at that price point, something asymptotically approaching perfection every time needs to be the standard, and it sounds like it hasn't been.

Yep, the veal "Oskar" at Mirabelle is a twist on a classic.

 

My last meal at the restaurant was lunch for two with one or two glasses of wine. The tab was $180.

Hey tom, Love your chats. I was interested in the question about the steak being served on a hot plate. One of my peeves when my children were young and the server would put a plate in front of a very young child and say "The plate is extremely hot"

Even at my advanced age, whenever a server says "the plate is very hot," the kid in me always wants to know "how hot?" and touch it.

That's nonsense. I get much better service, in general, in Europe, where waitstaff are paid a living wage.

Amsterdam has some of the world's worst service. Just my two euros.

Not the OP either, but there's slow and there's slow. I ate there a few weeks ago on an admittedly busy Wednesday evening. My companion ordered oysters for her appetizer, which came quickly. I ordered the johnny cake. After about 30 minutes, I checked in with the waiter to make sure he hadn't forgotten about it. He said it was coming, which it did, about 10 minutes later, followed by our mains maybe 5 minutes after that. It didn't ruin our evening, and everything was delicious, but that kind of sloppy pacing and lack of follow-up was frustrating.

Let's hope Salt Line reads this today.

Tom, thanks for your timely review of Mirabelle. We have reservations for Saturday night, but now I wonder if it's worth the "price of admission." We never eat beef at home, so I usually savor a steak at fine restaurants. Is there anything you can recommend?

I wouldn't go there for a steak, that's for sure, not when there are so many good places for steak around town. The menu changes quite a bit, so all I can vouch for is what I experienced in today's review.

Tom, the highlight of my Wednesday-- thank you so much for doing these! Heading to Bad Saint in about 10 days! Any highlights from the menu we must get? Will be going on a Monday-- would getting there around 4:30pm give us a good enough spot in line (there will be 3 of us) to make sure we get a seat or should I take off work a little early? Thanks!!

It really depends on the day. The line was relatively short on Monday (or so I heard), but when I visited Bad Saint a few weeks ago, mid-week, there were people camped out as early as 2:15. You just never know. If you want in on the first seating, I'd say be there no later than 3:30. One of several dishes that stood out: grilled prawns dipped in crab fat (roe), sprinkled with pinipig (dried, fried rice) and fired up with habanero.

 

Gotta run, folks. Sorry to cut this chat short today, but I'm still on a bit of a deadline. I promise to give you a full 60 minutes next week, same time. Until then, dine well.

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: