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

Sep 27, 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.

Tom One of my good friends is a line cook at Mirabelle. To cut a long story short he was pretty devastated last week when the review was published. From what I gather, the kitchen staff worship Frank and think he's a genius. So they were understandably upset when the restaurant received less than 3 stars. I’m in a difficult situation. On the one hand he's a good friend and I want to be supportive and side with him. On the other hand, I thought what you wrote was balanced, gave credit when credit was due, and was for the most part objective when it came to what you didn’t like. When I mention this to him he has had... lets just say animated responses. However, beneath the profanity he does make some counters: He claims the menu is in season/isn't as heavy as you suggest. Why does Jennifer Knowles have such a large impact on your opinion of the restaurant? Frank’s past has little to do with him or Mirabelle now ie. why is your memory of Polena the standard by which the food must adhere to? Aggie Chin’s style is often adventurous and innovative so why were you expecting classic/traditional desert? It’d be great to hear your response. More importantly, how would you encourage him to take the criticism in his stride and concentrate on preparing superlative food when he’s in the kitchen?

Frank Ruta is a terrific chef -- a fact I spent a lot of column inches relaying -- and sometimes you see that talent at Mirabelle and sometimes you don't. 

 

I can't recall a high-end restaurant with so many detractors. A lot of food fans have reported being seriously under-whelmed by their meals at Mirabelle. So it's not just one critic.

 

The reason I brought up Palena so much was two-fold: I wanted to give readers who didn't know the chef's long history some perspective and establish why I was disappointed by some -- but certainly not all -- of what I encountered in his new venture. The price at the restaurant was too high to overlook some flaws.  

 

It was a coup for the restaurant to get someone of Knowles' stature, and service is a big issue in Washington, which is why I spent time writing about her.  

 

I have nothing personal against anyone associated with the restaurant, and I don't think I was cheer-leading for any one player. I just expected more consistent deliciousness, that's all.

 

Your chef pal probably does want my advice, but the best thing to do in situations like this is to re-read the review -- there's lots that's positive therein -- and just keep striving to do the best work possible.

 

 

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining me today. I expect a lively hour or so of food chat, starting with this item. I'm happy to be done with the fall dining guide and pleased to start the countdown, tomorrow, of my Top 10 list. 

 

What's on your mind today, food-wise?

 

Hi Tom. I enjoyed your latest piece, and appreciated that you included a variety of topics -- chair height, exact change, and public prayer. On that last one -- I say thanks for my meals, but do so quietly. It's uncomfortable when a person wants others at a meal to stop what they are doing so that the person can demonstratively pray over his/her food. Not everyone wants to join in. But still we have to stop what we're doing so that we don't seem rude. So if you want to pray over your food, why not do so privately, in your head? Otherwise, one has to wonder for whose benefit you are doing it. Public prayer has been frowned upon by many people, including one extra-special person in whose name many pray publicly. (See Matthew 6.5 and 6.6.) Okay, Tom, I'm ready for the brickbats from angry readers.

Thanks for your feedback regarding my just-published round-up of reader questions. I have no problem with people showing some form of thanks in public, be it a (quick) prayer or a toast (clink!) In fact, I think such scenes can be kind of civilizing, especially in these divisive times.

We made a reservation last Friday night for four people at one of our favorite restaurants, Et Voila. Wen we got there it was packed as usual and we were told we would have approximately a ten minute wait. Ten minutes turned into 45 minutes and we were still not seated. The chef/owner came out and apologized. He said a table of four had been given a check a half hour ago, but would not leave. When we had waited over an hour, I went to the table and politely asked if they would leave, as we had been waiting for that table for over an hour. They sarcastically said they would, but did not budge. We were seated at another table at 9:30 and the restaurant could not have been any more accommodating. They did everything they could to placate us, including comping us for our meals. The offending couples eventually vacated the table (with one person even saying to us "enjoy your dinner"), but this made it a most unpleasant experience. My question is "What makes people think they are renting a table for the night when they should be reserving a table for a particular time slot?" Because of their rude behavior, they not only ruined our night; but, more importantly, they had a negative impact on the owners of this fine restaurant as they had to pay for our meal and could not "re-rent" that table. Is it out of the question to limit diners to a time frame that allows them to enjoy their meal without impacting other customers and causing economic hardship to the restaurant?

What courage you have, asking the campers to free up their table! I rather admire the gumption, although it's really up to the restaurant to manage the pacing of service and guests.

 

Typically, places budget about two hours for four diners; Et Voila! should have asked the quartet to free up their table after the bill was settled, maybe by moving them to the bar (remind me, does the renovated restaurant have a bigger spot for drinkers?)

Hi Tom! Love your chats! My husband and I ate at All-Purpose on Saturday night for the first time and were celebrating a special occasion, so we had drinks, apps, entrees, etc. We ordered one dessert to share, which the waiter indicated was his "favorite dessert on the menu." When he brought it out, he brought a second dessert and said, "I hope you don't mind - I also brought out my second favorite dessert for you to try." So nice - we enjoyed trying both. However, we were surprised to find the second dessert on our bill. Is it strange to bring patrons something they didn't order and then charge for it, or is that some new common practice? Obviously, we ate it and enjoyed it, and we weren't going to let the small additional charge ruin our night, but it was kind of annoying. Curious to hear your thoughts!

Ouch. Dessert -- your last impression of  an otherwise awesome restaurant -- leaves a sour taste, but only because what had been presented as a gift was in fact charged to your bill.

 

I would have said something along the lines of "You sent this out as on the house -- or were we mistaken?"   At any rate, your waiter should be ashamed of himself. Bad form.

Have you had a chance to try the Four Seasons replacement?

I have. And you'll be reading about it in two months. Preview: Bring lots of cash.

Hi Tom -- I'm a big fan of French bistro-type food. Years ago (well, decades, actually) I used to go to La Chaumière. The last time I was there I had the calf's brains, which were rich and custardy, and oh so good. I hadn't thought of La C. in quite a while, so when something in your most recent chat reminded me of them, I thought I would check in with a critic whose reviews I trust and enjoy, and see if you'd been there at all recently, and what you thought of it. I know there are so many new and exciting restaurants here, but every now and then, it's nice to visit an old friend.

As a matter of fact, I dipped into the venerable La Chaumiere just yesterday, where I enjoyed a respectable boudin blanc with sauteed apples and sliced veal with piped potatoes and a lemon-caper sauce. While I like the beamed dining room best in fall and winter, when the hearth in the center of the room is active, it was a treat to see some familiar faces, including that of the maitre d', who used to own La Colline on the Hill. Good times.

Hi Tom, This is more a public service announcement / discussion topic than a question, but please give it a read. Pineapple & Pearls' policy --announced upon booking and in follow-up reminders--is to charge half the prix fixe cost for your party upon booking and the balance on the reservation date, with a refund of the first tranche available only if the reservation is cancelled at least 5 days out. I reserved dinner at the bar for my husband and myself in July. My husband, who's an active duty military officer stationed overseas, was flying in for a few days, and I booked us for the night he was scheduled to arrive. He arrived on time...and went straight to the emergency room with hallucinations and a 106-degree fever that developed on the flight from something he'd had contact with before departure for the U.S. Very scary. I called the restaurant, repeatedly, as I was driving to the hospital to advise that we wouldn't be coming; no one picked up, and voicemail wasn't offered. I sent an email. My husband spent the night in the hospital but recovered fairly rapidly after a generous dose of Cipro. I heard from the restaurant the next day: They very kindly inquired about my husband's welfare (good) but explained that they did not make exceptions to their cancellation policy and would not offer either a refund or a credit (wow). So, PSA for those booking at Pineapple & Pearls: No refunds / no exceptions. Period. Full stop. If your dining companion dies, you'll still have to pay for his or her meal. And, discussion point: Is P&P's policy, as implemented, reasonable? On one hand, they advised me in advance, and I implicitly consented to the terms. I appreciate that it's a slippery slope--where to draw the line once you begin making exceptions? On the other hand, COME ON! REALLY?!?! If the food is as soulless as the management, we didn't miss anything.

I reached out to chef-owner Aaron Silverman, who provided the following response:

 

When competing in a market such as ours (fine dining) it is becoming necessary and often common practice to treat the experience like that of a sporting event or a concert/show; treating it like the sale of a “ticket”. Just like a concert or show, when one gets sick or has to cancel for any last minute reason, you unfortunately forfeit the ticket. With that said, we only apply this policy for cancellations within 24 hours of the experience. Cancellations made prior to 24 hours are issued refunds of varying amounts depending on the timing of the cancellation (5 days, 3 days, etc). This type of policy is something we have to stick to in order to provide the experience we do at the price point we offer.

 

In situations like these, please know that our front of house and guest liaison team do not take it lightly. We understand that dinner with us is often times a celebratory event and something that our guests have been looking forward to for quite some time so when situations like these arise, we do our best to offer options if they are available. We offer guests to transfer their reservation to friends or family members and we reach out to concierges in the area with calls to see if they might have guests that have interest in dining with us and filling the open seats. I can assure you that last minute cancellations keep our staff up at night more than any other issue. 

 

For us, the only fair way to handle these situations is to firmly hold to our policy because otherwise we would then be in the business of quantifying hardship, which is an inconceivable practice. In our ideal world, circumstances would be different but we strive to do the best we can with what we are given.

 

Thank you for the opportunity to weigh in.

Sincerely, 


Aaron 

 

 

TOM HERE: While I'm sympathetic to both the would-be guest and Pineapple and Pearls, after hearing from Mr. Silverman, I'm inclined to side with the restaurant. Dining establishments operate on very slim margins. The comparison to concerts and sporting events is a good one. And I appreciate a staff that's sincerely bothered by having to say "no" to would-be diners such as the OP.  But as the chef pointed out, who wants to be in the business of quantifying hardships?

 

Chatters, what say you?

 

This is the most important point. If you are going to charge high prices, the overall experience better be worth it.

Yep.

Yes, Et Voila does have a larger bar, but that was packed as well.

I still think the restaurant should have oh so politely asked them to move along: "We're happy you had a good time, and we see you've settled the bill. We have a party here that's been waiting a long time to be seated. Can we invite you in for a drink on another night, perhaps?"

To the poster who said they went up to the table of "campers" and asked them to leave: if you had come up to my table and "politely" asked me to leave, I wouldn't have budged either.

Because they were diners asking, not staff?

Hi Tom, I'm a new reader so apologies if you've already written this, but I was wondering if you have some recommendations of historically significant restaurants that can offer a great dining experience as well? I have a group of six family members coming over from the UK for the first time in Feb and I'd like to step outside the Old Ebbitt realm and help them eat their way through some D.C. history.

Old Angler's Inn in Potomac comes to mind, although I haven't dined there in a year or so and I can't tell you if the place holds up. (Chatters? Any recent experiences?) The aforementioned La Chaumiere is 40+ years, which certainly counts for something, too. Also in Georgetown: The long-running 1789. 

We are leaving for a last minute trip to Asheville next week. I've been told it's a foodie town---any recommendations for places to eat? Also, my husband loves craft beer/breweries, so any recommendations there would be helpful too. Thanks.

I don't mind paid line holders, what I do mind is when one person holds a spot for a bunch of people. It's extremely discourteous to the people standing in line. The one time I tried to eat at the bad saint, I saw one person hold a spot for 5 extra people, and that wasn't an isolated incident. That night, the people in front of me got the last table for the night, and more people were turned away than got in. Believe me, the crowd was furious enough that if they had a policy in place for no line holders, the crowd would have gladly turned on the bad players. I have many problems with the way the Bad Saint handled their line management, but that was one of the big ones. On a positive note, I went to Rose's last night and Little Serrow a few thursdays ago; you could have shown up when the doors open (without waiting in line) and gotten a table.

I've been in line a couple times at a few no-reservations places and witnessed one person holding spots for a gaggle of diners. It's irritating, I agree, but who would enforce a limit? 

Even without Silverman weighing in my opinion wouldn't change so perhaps I am biased but ..... you wouldn't call the Kennedy-Center and ask for a refund and you wouldn't call Nats park to ask for one...why should the restaurant be different. This isn't something where people generally wander off the street for a meal so they can't even turn the table to someone else. You made a commitment and while you couldn't keep it for totally understandable reasons at the end of the day all that matters is that you didn't keep it. Besides - you were telling the truth but the next person may not have been... and then what do they do

I think restaurants, being part of the hospitality industry, are held to a different standard. Is it fair? Not really.

 

Think about it. People who would never dream of asking their dentist for a free cleaning, or their lawyer for a gratis will, because they were running late think nothing of demanding freebies from restaurants that are running behind. 

'To the poster who said they went up to the table of "campers" and asked them to leave: if you had come up to my table and "politely" asked me to leave, I wouldn't have budged either.' To that poster, that's the problem in our world these days. Both lack of awareness that put's the other diners in such a position to have to ask and an overall lack of decency/compassion towards the situation. As for the P&P cancellation policy. You are warned far in advance. I sympathize with the last minute emergency, but what is the restaurant supposed to do in this situation? If they ate every bill for last minute cancellations given their format, they would close. Not everyone who has a last minute cancellation has a legit reason, most people are flakes in this day and age.

True, that! Lots and lots of flakes. Especially problematic are people who book at multiple restaurants for the same time and don't have the courtesy to cancel the bookings they don't intend to honor. No wonder some restaurants ask for credit cards.

Tom - I know this topic comes up often, so here's my contribution to things that drive me nuts with restaurant websites. The first is the lack of important information, and very basic information, like how do you walk in the door. I tried to make an Open Table reservation for Tiger Fork.....no deal. No problem, I'll try Resy. No deal there either. So I figured they must have reservations on their website (which I already looked at briefly but didn't find anything). After clicking every single link and scrolling through every page and finding nothing on reservations, I called them only to find out they don't take reservations! They do note, in very small print, that if you have a large party, you should call for reservations, but they end it there. They neglect to mention that for regular sized parties, they don't take reservations! Why would they leave that important bit of news off the site!!! Speaking of important things most restaurants leave off their sites is which metro stop is closest. Why?!?!? It's so easy and natural to include, seems like a no brainer, but rarely do I see that info. It's like not posting the address!! The third thing that drives me nuts is when places don't post the entire menu in one link. I was at a place in upstate NY this summer and the menu was divided up into six sections all having their own page and link. They had Soups and Salads, Sandwiches and Wraps, Specialties, Paninis and Pastas, Sides, and Gluten Free Options. It was maddening to get a feel for the entire menu and try to figure out what to order, or if it was even worth trying, by constantly flipping screens!!

Excellent post. Here's hoping every restaurant that sees this takes notes and updates its online presence to include everything on your wish list. 

I think a little leaway to consider the situation would go a long way. This is someone who has just returned from combat and was rushed straight to hospital, ao I think allowing a change of reservation would have been gracious. It's not like a concert or a play - the band will move on and the run will end but the restaurant hopefully remains. My take - keep that policy but in extreme cases like this get everlasting praise by offering a new date.

While I sympathize with the original poster, I have to question her booking an exclusive restaurant on the very day of her husband's arrival. I mean, anyone who flies with any regularity knows how unpredictable airline schedules are -- and how exactly can someone enjoy a dining adventure after such a long flight? Just curious!

If a lawyer made mistakes writing my will or the dentist screwed up my teeth then, yes, I would ask for a discount!

I'm talking delays here, not serious mistakes.

Well, while I sympathize with the restaurant, I do believe this is an absurd policy around illness. Even the airlines, with their horrible customer service, make exceptions for hospitalization or death. By the way I am sure they still managed to filled the table. If they are so worried about margins and its keeping them up at nights, how about a standby list just in case a table opens up unexpectedly. When you create a business plan, you have to account for a certain amount of revenue leakage. That is prudent planning.

Pineapple and Pearls is a small dining room. Stand-by lists can be hard to keep for such an exclusive night.  But thanks for the feedback.

You know, it really should be up to the restaurant to enforce the line rules, if they're going to have this policy. Because of these policies, I would never dine at one of these places, no matter how good they are.

Well, you're also missing out on some of the best food in the city, but if that's you're thinking, you're entitled. It's not like Little Serow or Bad Saint are facing empty seats.

 

One possibility is for a no-reservation place to post a sign out front, asking hopeful diners to do X, Y or Z. Thoughts?

A few nights ago, since our home a/c was on the blink, the three of us decided to go out for dinner rather than cook. We just went to a chain restaurant, nothing fancy, but it fit our needs that night. It server was VERY friendly, to the point of chatting with us quite a bit. He didn't write down the order and, for the most part, was able to get it correct. However, he brought out the wrong dressing for one of the salads, brought out a soup with no spoon (the soup was cold by the time he brought a spoon), and brought out a side vegetable that had been changed at the time we ordered. He then kept coming to our table to see if we were "comfy," a rather strange question, in our minds. By the time we were finished our meal, it took about 25 minutes to get our bill because he was them chatting to the people at his only other table. They had come in after us and ended up leaving before us while we were still awaiting the bill. I felt his tip should have been reduced but one of the others thought that, because he was "nice," it should not have been. What we expected to be a quick dinner ended up talking almost 3 hours. What are your thoughts, please?

Having just endured a dinner this week where my "I hate to interrupt you" waiter interrupted us every two minutes, you are preaching to the choir. More servers need to be taught to "read" tables to determine the desired level of interaction with guests.

Websites which don't list prices - I just won't go. I had one restaurant tell me if you have to ask the price you can't afford it.

Is that restaurant still in business?

While I completely understand the restaurant's frustration with last minute cancellations, I think they could have been more sympathetic to this particular couple. The husband is ACTIVE DUTY MILITARY (thank you for your service), and the wife called the restaurant repeatedly, tried to leave a message, and sent an e-mail. Those would not be my first actions should I be in that situation. So, Pineapple and Pearls did not fulfill their end of the bargain. In his response, Chef Silverman said they try to reach out to concierges, etc. to fill the spot. How could they make those efforts if they don't answer their phone? These hard lines are silly and ridiculous.

The "active duty military" detail gave me pause, too. My dad was a Marine (purple heart!) and my brother was Army. The situation is ... complicated.

Given that they aren't open on the weekends, maybe that was the only night available to them...

Fair point.

It's very possible this was a simple error by the server - often, to get the item on the order system, you have to ring it through as if it had been ordered normally. Then you or a manager may need to void it off the bill - as a "promo", for example. There are times when people are busy and this gets overlooked. It would be very unlikely the restaurant would be trying to upsell by bringing people food, unrequested, then charging for it. I'm sure a mention of it to the server would have sorted this out. These errors do happen and it seems the server was trying to do something nice.

Maybe so. The OP should have pointed out the surprise charge.

Hi Tom - I'm a ticketing professional here in DC and have worked many events around town, including in the arts, sports, concerts, and attractions. With due kindness to P&P...yes, we do have policies about missed events, but we also have heart and will (whenever we can - I mean, sorry, Strasburg's first game can't get rescheduled if you miss it) work with you to reach a compromise - a refund, a credit, another event, a free drink, etc. Lets not label and entire industry as inflexible or heartless. Happy to talk more with Mr. Silverman if he'd like so that our industries can learn from each other. Thanks Tom!

Thanks for weighing in. My email is tom.sietsema@washpost.com if you care to reach out.

whether your emergency is real or made up for the purpose of trying to cancel a reservation without notice. I'm sorry about your husband, and I know it must have been an awful experience. But more and more people behave so badly toward restaurants that I don't blame the owners for having a hard-&-fast policy.

Sad but true.

IMO, there is a little bit of an implied threat in that post because the OP's husband is in the military. "How dare P&P not support our military." I appreciate the restaurant's resolve to make a policy and stick with it. Bright line rule, no exceptions. Everyone is on equal footing. No one's situation is more important than anyone else's.

Interesting. Thanks for weighing in. (I learn so much from you all. What a SMART audience.)

Hi Tom, My coworkers and I are looking for a place to do a wine lunch during the week. We usually go to Proof (which we love), but we are bringing a larger group this time and sitting at the bar won't work. Looking for a place that does a lunch/wine combo like Proof but in the dining room that can fit 6-8 people. We are near Smithsonian metro, but happy to travel a few metro spots or jump in an Uber if necessary. Price around $15-20 each would be great.

I'd reach out to Central Michel Richard to see if it can meet your needs.

Hi Tom. My family and I normally say grace before our meals, whether at home or dining out. However, the manner in which we do so varies depending on the company and occasion. For for more formal occasions, or one where we know that others at the table are fellow believers, we will generally offer a brief, audible-yet-discreet prayer of thanks. On occasions where it's less formal, when people are served at different times (like a buffet), or people of varying faiths (or no faith) are present, we will offer a silent prayer on our own. Above all however, we try not to be ostentatious or obnoxious about it. We don't want to disturb other diners, and we don't want to cause traffic jams while servers patiently wait for us to finish. On a lighter note, one of the debates that we often have with church-going friends: "Do we say grace before the bread basket, the appetizer, or the main course??"

Thanks for chiming in. (I vote for after the bread basket.)

Online menus and even menus one receives in the restaurant often do not include a listing of desserts. Why? I'd like to know if I should save room for dessert and also get an idea of how much they cost. I actually prefer a dessert tray so I can see the size as well.

Catch that, menu writers? Do yourselves a favor and give diners a preview.

So if I want to get out of a reservation with no penalty, I should lie and say my husband is active duty? I feel for the poster, but the restaurant cannot be in the business of evaluating the truth of excuses.

Fair point!  (See the difficult position restaurants find themselves in?)

I don't mind a separate menu for dessert, the way there is for drinks, but why can't it be presented at the beginning of the meal with the other menus? That way a diner can make a more informed decision. And I repeat my plea for everyone at a table getting a separate drinks menu at the outset!

Yes. And yes.

So nice to see my home state get some love around these parts! (Please excuse all of our other flaws...) A few ideas to add to what Tom shared: Wicked Weed is a classic brewery on the main drag with great beer, food, and big fire pits to sit around in the evening. They were recently bought by Anheuser-Busch which puts a dent in their craft-beer status, but it's worth a trip in my opinion. The owners also have a smaller tasting room for sour beers only called the Funkatorium. The Wedge is a super fun brewery in the River Arts District, right on the French Broad River. It's an easy walk from downtown. Good beer, big outdoor space with cornhole, food trucks, etc. It's surrounded by some art studies including a cool glass blowing place. Other breweries: Twin Leaf brewing; Burial brewing; Hi-Wire brewing. Re: food: Salsas and White Duck Taco are amazing for casual eats, and Curate is a James Beard-winning tapas restaurant. All are delicious. The giant bowls at Salsas of avocados and plantains and vegetables and cheese and beans and mango and salsa and fish are one of my favorite meals ever. Early Girl Eatery and Sunny Point Cafe are great for brunch. West Asheville is also worth exploring - Hole donuts, the Admiral, etc. Getting so hungry typing this all out!

And just as we're winding down. Thank you for the list!

If you don't use your theatre seats, the show still goes on. If you don't use your Nats tickets, the game is still played (unless there's a deluge or blizzard!). But if you don't go to the restaurant, the food you would have ordered is not cooked and eaten and may be saved for the next day. Yes, they have lost a check, but they are not out the cost of the food. I think under these understandable circumstances something could have been done for a person who returned from serving our country.

Actually, there's a lot of perishable food -- pre-made items, too -- involved in some dining destinations.

 

That's a wrap for today, gang. Please join me next week, same time, and maybe we can discuss my unfolding Top 10 list. Until then, be 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.
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