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

Jan 16, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

Tom, I will soon be enjoying dinner at the Tasting Room. However, I'm told Chef Cathal Armstrong is only cooking at Restaurant Eve once or twice a week anymore, and that chef duties are now on a new chef de cuisine. I'm sure that's fine, and it will be a lovely meal, but what's going on? I know this is not uncommon for famous chefs to hand off to others once a place is well-established, but I thought the Tasting Room was his exclusive domain. Is he semi-retired now or can we find him in the kitchen somewhere else? Is the Tasting Room still worth the hefty price tag even without him there?

Far from being "semi-retired," Armstrong continues to cook on weekends at Restaurant Eve, according to his wife and business partner, Meshelle Armstrong. He also spends time at his younger establishments, Society Fair and Virtue Feed & Grain and on a cookbook expected to come out in March 2014.  About a year ago, the top toque tapped Jeremy Hoffman, a veteran of Per Se in New York, to be Eve's chef de cuisine.


Hoffman has been with Armstrong for three years, sufficient time to put out a menu worthy of his boss and Eve’s reputation. After all these years, Eve is a pretty well-oiled machine. I think you can dine there with confidence, just as you can at any number of  high-end places where the No. 2s  might be executing most of the dishes.  


Good morning, gang. Lots to discuss! Have you heard about the chef changes at Vermilion and Ripple?  If you have a moment, please check out my suggestions for where the Obamas should eat in the next four years. What would you add to the list?


A house-keeping note: I'm away next Wednesday. I'll be back to answer your dining questions again Jan. 30.


Let's begin.

Your occasional paeans to Popeye's have always left me intrigued. I've never tried them before, but now that I've moved across the street from one I'd love to know what's your favorite meal? And how sparingly should I eat there?

I probably do Popeye's about four times a year, and my standing order is a batch of spicy fried chicken, red beans and rice and coleslaw.  The last time I picked up that guilty pleasure, at the (okay, let's name names) Logan Circle branch, they FORGOT MY COLESLAW.  I felt like the kid whose box of  Cracker Jacks is missing the surprise inside.  Bummed beyond reason.

Can you suggest places that can accommodate 50 people mostly adults but we may have about 5 toddlers? Preferably DC/MD but it can also be in VA.

If you want big, you gotta think big, as in Clyde's (various locations), Matchbox (various locations, with the newest on 14th St. NW), Carmine's in Penn Quarter and Bungalow Lakehouse in Sterling.

Missed following your chats over the holidays, but wanted to chime in on one annoying restaurant issue; seating incomplete parties. To me it is a part of a bigger problem, overbooking the room. From my experience it seems that the places with the strictest enforcement of this are also the most likely to make you wait to be seated when you show up on time for a reservation. To me that indicates a management problem not a customer problem. If a place has the policy to not seat incomplete parties then they had better be darned sure that they seat me when we all do show up on time. There are several places in town I have stopped going to because of this. Most recent casualty was due to this scenario. Show up at 10 minutes before reservation time, 3 of us are dropped at door by driver who goes to park the car; she has 24/7 reserved parking in building next door. “Sorry” can’t seat you till everyone is here, knowing we have a reservation in 10 minutes and there is only one empty 4 tops in sight. What are they going to do give it away if someone with not reservation shows up in the next 7 minutes? So we tell them to send our friend to the bar where we will be having drinks (which we would have ordered at the table.) Meanwhile the bar is unable to serve us before our friend shows up and I have to close out a tab for drinks I haven’t gotten yet and they have to deliver them to the table. Oh on the filling of the wine glass issue, follow the French rule; Empty glasses get filled, leave a little in to be left alone. This wouldn’t have been so bad except the reason we got their early to plant the flag on a table was that less than a month before that I and all present and accounted had shown up at 7:58 for an 8:00 reservation and had to wait 20 minutes in the bar for a table at the same establishment. If someone in the trade can explain why this is customer problem not a management issue I would love to hear it.

Any industry insiders care to take this question?


I, too, hate waiting for "the rest of the party" when I have a 1) confirmed reservation, 2) I'm honest about my companions joining me momentarily and 3) I plan to order a cocktail or wine when I'm seated, at which time I start running a tab and makinge money for both waiter and restaurant. 


Restaurants argue that diners  occasionally mislead them, that the stragglers who are "almost here!" are in fact miles or more away from the dining room.  Late arrivals mess the flow of a business up more than you can imagine, not unlike delayed flights. A few bad apples can ruin it for those of us who strive to be on time, I'm afraid.

Where were you? On Jan 2nd you said: "Thanks for showing up for the first chat of the year, gang. I'll be back in the captain's seat again next Wednesday, same time, same station. Until then, dine well. – January 02, 2013 12:03 PM " But, nothing is posted from Jan 9th!

I chatted Jan. 9. Here's proof.


Sorry about the delay. Technical difficulties.

Hi Tom - I know ranting about restaurant websites is a common occurrence around here, but since you have an audience I again want to beg restaurateurs to put prices on their online menus. I want to know your prices. I want to know if this is an everyday restaurant, a splurge restaurant, or an "I shouldn't even bother" restaurant. I want to know if it is a restaurant I can go to with my broke Hill staffer friend or I need to wait for my lawyer friends. I want to know if I should plan to enjoy a full three-course meal or if it will strictly be appetizers at the bar. I feel confident that all of these are reasonable questions. So restaurant owners, if I cannot get these answers online, I am likely to not patronize the restaurant. If your prices are such that you're not comfortable putting them online, consider lowering your prices. Managing expectations is part of your job, and I will be both happier and likely to open my wallet if I come in with full knowledge of what to expect. Tom, thanks for letting me get this off my chest!

Excellent rant.


Restaurants, if you want our business, make it easy for diners to access the particulars of your establishment -- hours, menus, parking and PRICES included.

Hi Tom, I'm looking for space for about 20 people to have an office-group dinner. A private room or dedicated space would be ideal, and we need it to have some good veggie options. We will be meeting near Farragut West. Any ideas? I haven't been to Kellari Tavern yet and it sounds good, but would welcome other ideas.

Kellari Tavern is a shadow of what the Greek seafood outpost was when it set sail, sorry to say. Better: the Oval Room near the White House.

So Tom - are you going somewhere fun next week? Can we expect a new Travel piece or Postcard from Tom?

I'm off to San Juan. For a meeting. Seriously. First order of business is a pig roast in the nearby hills.

Hi Tom! I've just moved back to DC after about a year and a half away, and have noticed there are lots of delicious looking new places to check out, especially along 14th St. I always like the places you recommend, so I'd like to start with your new favorites! If I can be greedy, I would love an affordable suggestion and a splurge suggestion. Adventurous eating is a plus.

Welcome back.


DC doesn't have a lot of good Japanese cooking, which makes the newish Izakaya Seki on V St. NW all the more encticing. I'd put the pop-and-daughter restaurant in the affordable-to-splurge category (depending on how much, and what brand, of sake you like).  Another welcome addition, also in the moderate range, is the recently reviewed DGS Delicatessen in Dupont Circle: very good chopped chicken liver, matzo ball soup and cheescake, plus a terrific wine and cocktail program. And surely you've heard of this tiny basement spot, also in Dupont Circle, that serves wicked Thai?

Tom - I searched the Postcard section and it looks like the last time you had a Postcard from Vegas was in 2009. Do you have an update handy? I'm going to be there in a couple of weeks for a long weekend and I don't know who to trust. And then there is you. Thanks so much.

Awww. Thanks for the sentiment.


The places I enjoyed most on my last trip to Sin City --  in 2011 -- were then-new dining rooms from DC's very own Jose Andres:  a splashy version of Jaleo and China Poblano, with a Chinese-Mexican script. Both restaurants are in the Cosmopolitan hotel.


Are there any other recommendations from today's audience?

PLEASE do not make us open a PDF file to look at your menu! This is irritating beyond belief, not so much because it makes us take a couple of extra steps, but because so many menu PDFs are REALLY badly formatted and hard to read. Restaurateurs, if you have a web expert, they know HTML and they can put the damn menu right on the web page. This is a factor that causes me to skip a restaurant that I would otherwise patronize.

Consider your rant added to the list!

I want to thank 2 of my employees and their significant others for going the extra mile. Tysons seems to be centrally located for everyone, but we want to eat sometime between 6-7 on a Saturday evening, and I don't want us to be waiting 2 hours to eat, so a place that takes reservations would be preferred. The type of cuisine is flexible, and while I want it to be a nice dinner, I'm not looking for the most expensive place either. Any recommendations?

Pickings are slim in Tysons, but two places come to mind: Nostos, a handsome Greek retreat, and Harth, a modern American venue in the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner. 


I've heard from food pals that Nostos may have slipped since my original review, but my brother (hey, bro!) who is visiting this week and staying in Tysons was raving about the latter just the other night.

I understand that DGS may not be kosher, but please explain what makes it kosher style? Surely not topping french fries with a swiss cheese and smoked meat topping. Perhaps they should have left it at New York-style. By the way, fried chicken skin is called "griebenes" to real deli-fans.

I don't want to speak for the new deli, but "kosher style"  is used by some purveyors when they aren't in complete accordance with Jewish dietary laws. The riff on poutine is obviously not kosher; on the other hand, DGS doesn't serve pork or shellfish.

Which new restaurant was your favorite in 2012?

From the online list?  I like them all for different reasons, but if I had to choose right this nanosecond, I'd get in line for dinner at Little Serow.  Its flavors are very exciting. But darn that wait outside!

A very strong agreement here for calling out restaurants that don't honor reservations in a timely manner. If I arrive on time with a full party and am told to wait in the bar for 20 minutes because my table isn't ready. Ok, things happen. But typically there are many other parties already in the bar who are also waiting for tables. This is overbooking and the restaurant should be accountable.

In defense of restaurants, overbooking is often the result of diners not honoring their reservations. Restaurants can't afford to have empty tables. That said, patrons honoring their arrival times who are asked to wait it out in the bar should get a little something -- a drink or whatever -- after 15 minutes.

Tom, have you heard why Memphis BBQ closed in Crystal City? We had just eaten there a week before it closed. Service had improved markedly from our first visit (but the mirror in the ladies room was still mounted too high on the wall).

I haven't investigated the matter, but I can't say I'm surprised. Memphis BBQ left me singing the blues after my meals there last winter.

Going to spend the weekend in Charm City. Is Charleston still considered the best restaurant there?

I liked, but didn't love, my last dinner at Charleston, which is why it didn't go into my fall dining guide. If you're looking for something delicious and fun with an Asian spin, try the recently reviewed Pabu in the Four Seasons there.

I don't recall seeing Hank's Oyster Bar on that list. Definitely should be. I suspect they would enjoy it very much.

Because ...?


My dozen suggestions were based on what the Obamas have enjoyed in the past -- cuisines, dishes, date night venues. How do you think the seafood joint might fit in?

Really interested in trying the Range, but I'm not sure I understand how the restaurant works. You order different items and they come staggered? So your side dish may come at a different time than your fish, for example? Or is it more like a tapas concept? It sounds interesting, but confusing!

It was confusing!  As I wrote in my preview of Range, my dinner came out in parts. But chef Bryan Voltaggio told me afterwards that he's working on the pacing at the newcomer.

No, this Old Town resident has not heard anything yet on the chef change at Vermillion. Do I have time for one more meal under Chef Chittum? Also, we need to get you to visit some of the ethnic places along King Street -- there are several Lebanese and Greek restaurants that I think you may enjoy.

You have a little time to experience Chittum's food. His last meal at Vermilion will be Valentine's Day.


Just fyi:  Where else should I be eating in Old Town?  I've checked out a number of smaller restaurants there, but few that have grabbed my interest. 

With the trend for many little courses, I feel like tacking back with an all in one dish such as biryani. Do you have any favorites or favorite places to get them?

For those who might not know, biryani is a mound of fragrant rice dressed with meat and vegetables. I find myself dreaming about the goat biryani at Curry Mantra in Fairfax a lot.

Tom, I have a reservation coming up soon for Blue Duck Tavern, which I've heard through the grapevine is good, although I really don't know much about it. Have you been recently? And is there anything in particular you'd recommend? It must be hot. I toyed with changing my reservation since we have the option for something else that night, but after I discovered I couldn't get the same day/time for 2 months, I think I'll keep it.

Stick with your reservation at Blue Duck Tavern. And don't miss the scallops or the sweetbreads.

I second that. I find it really irritating when you look online and they don't have the price. And to anyone who would suggest that "if I have to ask, I can't afford it." I counter that I want to make sure I'm getting my money's worth! If something claims to have truffles but it's a curiously low price point, then I might suspect the dish is not up to par.

Bottom line: It's a courtesy -- good service -- to list prices. 

We recently had to go to the Olive Garden for a friend's birthday celebration. It's probably my least favorite restaurant (I always feel like I've eaten a salt trough there), but it was our friend's choice. We were a large party of 18 people with nine kids, most under five. Much to my surprise, we had *outstanding* service--our two servers handled our large party and all the kids with grace and aplomb. They got everything right and were friendly and accommodating. (BTW, the servers complimented us on how well behaved all the kids were.) My husband and I told the manager how pleased we were with the service. So kudos to the Olive Garden for service (if not for food).

I'm not surprised. Some of these corporate chains put a lot of time, money and thought into their hospitality.

Had the best meal of my life last week! The lobster with yogurt, and burnt honey was genius! I know to each is own, but I don't see eye to eye with your review! The chefs were very friendly and engaging and service was very attentive and seamless. You need to go back. Did you go on their first day or something?

I'm not sure POTUS is that into experimental dining. Minibar is easily a three-hour time commitment. 


Can stuff change after a review? Sure. By the way, I never said the staff weren't engaging (they were). But I expect close to perfection for $400 +  -- per person -- for a meal.

Tom, this is why the serial comma should be part of WaPo's style manual. It is only thanks to my history with Popeye's that I know they do not mix coleslaw with rice, or serve red beans and rice separately. Feel free to pass the suggested change along to the appropriate people.

As someone who cares about such matters, but is also doing this live and quickly, my sincere apologies.

I am headed to Istanbul in a few months. I am trying to becoming familiar with the culture, including food options in advance. If you have any recommendations while there or something to try in advance to become familiar, it would be greatly appreciated.

One of the best tours I've ever taken was led by Istanbul Eats, originated by some American food enthusiasts. Put it at the top of your list, right up there with the Blue Mosque. 

I will visiting DC Jan 24-28 and am trying to think of the name of the French bakery/sandwich shop located, as I remember, across the street fom Nat'l Archive. Thanks!

Paul's at 801 Penn. Ave NW?

Folks, this is a free chat and Tom takes time to do it -- as it appears -- with less than spectacular technology and little suport from management, so zip the whinning, where were you, you are late, etc. Don't like it? Go elsewhere!!

Well, I can sympathize some. I don't like to waste my time on things that are slow or don't work, either. But we are working on our issues, ladies and gents.

Tom: You have been doing a great job as a restaurant critic for some time now. Ever thought about moving into other types of journalism like your colleagues at the NYT seem to do?

Thanks. I've been writing about food and restaurants since 1984 -- a long time -- yet I still find the subjects endlessly fascinating. I've had this job since the summer of 2000.


Who knows? Change is good, but why change careers if you love what you do?


I appreciate that the job of restaurant critic at the NYT is seen as an important beat. I mean, Frank Bruni covered the White House and Rome before he stepped into the eating gig. That's pretty cool, huh?

I enjoyed my meal at Nostos last month. It was tasty and the dining room was very full and lively (reservations on Sat night are a must, I think). My meal was a little lukewarm so I wonder if it was waiting a while for my husband's meal to come out. I saw a lot of larger groups eating family style - ordering main courses and sharing. So thumbs up for a lively and fun atmosphere. The service was quirky. They messed up an appetizer order and instead of changing it on the bill, they gave us a freebie. I would've preferred a fixed bill since we were so full but it was nice to get a freebie.

Useful feedback. Thank you!

...about the chats is that the chats all used to be pretty much trouble-free. Since the Post switched over to the new format, there are errors and problems just about every single day. It's inexcusable, and the Post producers need to hear about it.

We hear you.

Try Fleming's, excellent and good wine offerings.

Another option -- and a good wine program, I agree.

Saw a billboard on my way in to work today for an Old Country Buffet. Advertising its NEW! Mongolian Hot Pot! Guess there's more than one Old Country.

LOve it.


nd on that note, I bid you all a delicious rest of the week. See you back here Jan. 31. Ciao.

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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 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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