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

Jan 30, 2013

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

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at

My boyfriend really enjoys Modernist Cuisine. Besides Mini-Bar and Rogue 24 what are some restaurants in the area which serve modernist dishes?

Add Suna, the yet-to-be-reviewed novelty from a former chef of the late Town House in Chilhowie, Va.


Happy Wednesday, gang. It’s great to be back in the captain’s seat after several days in not-so-sunny San Juan, where I enjoyed some of the best pork of my career, at an outdoor island roast, and got a chance to check out some new restaurants, including the handsome Mi Casa by Jose Andres, which made its debut in the Ritz Carlton in Dorado last month.


Lots of movement on the restaurant scene. Have you heard about the Swedish chef at the forthcoming Capella hotel in Georgetown? …. the owner of Lincoln downtown tells me he’s hired a top toque for his next presidentially-themed establishment, Teddy & the Bully Bar, slated for a spring launch on 19th St. NW. Congrats go to Michael Hartzer of Food Wine & Co., says his new employer, Alan Popvsky  …  in Bethesda, Brickside opens for dinner tonight at 4 p.m.  Co-owner Andrea Pace has yet to find a full-time chef for the fresh face, which will offer sliders, pasta, pizza and a T-bone for two: “very casual, comfort food,” says the talent behind Villa Mozart in Fairfax.


Ready, set, ask away!


Hi Tom - First, love the chats. Thanks for keeping us up to date on the dining scene. With that said, what's with all of the oversized menus, and I do mean the physical size of that thing you're handed, and from which you are expected order. In some very nice restaurants I've had two menus hit a table and more than cover the entire top of it. I've seen several water glasses drench dinners simply trying to find a place to set the #$! things done. This is a minor issue in the world of big picture stuff, but since you are so very grecious about all of the petty rants, I thought I'd run this one past you.

As I was reading your complaint, I couldn't help but think of my multiple meals at the recently reviewed Farmers Fisher Bakers in Georgetown. More plastic than Mattel lands on the table in the form of drink and food menus.

Welcome back, Tom. In your opinion, which would you recommend most highly as the best all-around DC steakhouse? J&G, BLT Steak, Smith & Wollensky, or the Palm? I have only been to two of the above and am tasked with making a reservation at "the best" steakhouse in town. Many thanks! JC

My favorite meat market at the moment -- for wine, service, sides and beef (especially anything dry-aged) -- is Bourbon Steak in Georgetown. Close behind is the handsome J & G Steak in the W Hotel, which not only serves divine steaks, but terrific fish and vegetable dishes.

I think it's amazing that, though I haven't been to Washington in twelve years and probably won't visit more than one or two of the restaurants you review in my life, I'm sitting here in Rhode Island absolutely hanging on your every opinion. thanks for all your good work.

Your post just made my week. Thank you, reader from Rhode Island!

I snagged a reservation at Vidalia for Restaurant Week in February (woohoo!) but then looked at the menu online. I eat fish, but no meat and discovered that just about everything has ham in it! Do you think they'll have veggie/fish options in February?

I don't know. But let's ask the owner of the southern charmer: Hey, Chef Buben, can those RW dishes be made without ham or other flesh?

Hi Tom! I'm a new resident in the Logan Circle area looking for great brunch. So far I've been the Tabard Inn, Nage, and Cork. Any other recommendations? Thanks.

You forgot Birch & Barley.

Hi Tom - I have an etiquette question when ordering wine. I've found that sometimes two glasses of wine with dinner aren't quite enough - at those times I ask the server if I can order a half of a glass. Some servers say "Sure" right off, others say they're not sure, but they'll ask (I'd say about half of the time the answer is yes, the other half of the time no), while at 1789 just a few days ago I had a waiter inform me "No - and nobody has ever asked me that before." A simple "No, we don't do that" would have been fine, since I accept a yes happily and a no as a final answer, but that reply got me to thinking - is this even a proper request to make? Was it as uncouth a request as was insinuated? Thanks!

If a customer asks for a half a glass of grape juice -- been there/done that --  the restaurant should pour one on and charge for the three or so ounces. Not sure why a server would forgo the sale?

Hi Tom, Ok, I know this opinion is likely to rustle some feathers, and I apologize, but: I'm not quite sure I understand why all the fuss about Rasika. I had dinner there for the first time last weekend and, yes, the food was delicious, but I guess based on all the hype it's gotten I expected more, especially in terms of service. Our reservation was a bit on the late side, but still. We were seated at this weird, cramped little table in the back and I thought the service felt cordial, but also very rushed. We were pretty eager and inquisitive about the menu: me, because it was my first time and I really wanted to get everything out of the experience; my friend, because she's a vegetarian and really wanted to max out those options. Our server was kind of lackluster. When we asked for recommendations, he rattled off the "classic" Indian dishes, like chicken tikka masala. And then he kind of disappeared. Based on comments like the one in your review ("There's nothing like this in ...") I was expecting a more memorable experience. My friend is actually from one of the cities that finish off that comment in your review and she really liked the food, but wasn't blown away by the whole event. (It probably didn't help that I'd billed this dinner as "the hardest reservation to get in this city!") Is this just one of those cases of having read too many raves that my expectations were overblown? I mean, I did like it and I'll go there again, but I won't be checking OpenTable at all hours of the day and night hoping for an opening. Nor would I think of Rasika if I have a really special event to celebrate. Frankly, for service and ambiance and food all taken together, I'd opt for Central first.

Restaurants are like live theater. Every shift is a little different. I'm sorry your experience at one of my favorite Indian experiences didn't live up to the expectations that critics and others have raised.


Rushing is a problem; so is a table you find uncomfortable. Did you ask to be relocated? 


Knowing the restaurant, someone from Rasika is going to follow up with me and request your contact number or email. Share them (via this forum) if you want.

Hi Tom. Have you been to Ambar yet? The menu looks interesting and I'm excited to have another option for getting Croatian wine in the DC area. We visited the Balkans last year and get a bit nostalgic from time to time.

I've visited the Capital Hill newcomer, detailed in a recent Food section article by Tim Carman, but I'm withholding judgement for the moment.  Can't scoop myself, you know? But I'm very interested in the flavors, which I grew fond of during a trip to Sarajevo two winters ago.

I am happy to see restaurants starting to offer glasses of wine in two sizes, a la the "flight" trend: 3 oz. and 6 oz.

Yep. Everybody wins when restaurants offer those tastes. Share suggestions for who does, please!

Thanks for the C'ville review Tom. What other restaurants have you tried in that area? Any you weren't so impressed by? On one your drives down or back you ought to stop at BBQ Exchange in Gordonsville. For my money it's the best BBQ in the state of Virginia.

I had great fun visiting Charlottesville to review the promising new Glass Haus Kitchen for this Sunday.  There were some disappointments along the way, including Petit Pois and the over-hyped Ten. One of them was *not* the charming BBQ Exchange, which I porked out at late last year and really enjoyed.  Have yet to go back and file a formal review, however.

Drives me crazy (insert soundtrack here). I can see charging slightly more than half for a half, but "no" much less making customer seem like a first in a not laudatory way? Used to eat out lavishly, can't right now, but at my nearby mid-range Italian eatery, servers will even ask if they can "top you off." I tip as tho charged.

And I bet they adore your company.

Tom, I'm headed to LA in a few days, and I've always wondered - do food reviewers in other major cities do interactive chats (what is the proper word??) like we have here in Washington? (While I'm at it: any recommendations in the Venice/Santa Monica area?) Thanks, always enjoy your reviews and appreciate that you devote your time to having these interactive conversations.

I'm rusty on southern California eateries, alas, but I know that the esteemed Jonathan Gold at the Los Angeles Times, Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer and  Rick Nelson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune  all host similar online forums.

I'm headed to Range for the first time this weekend. I'm excited, but it sounds almost overwhelming. Any advice on how best to tackle this restaurant?

I haven't been back since Bryan Voltaggio's extravaganza opened. Anyone have recent intel?

Thanks to a Christmas gift we were able to dine at Volt's Table 21. Amazing how calm and focused the kitchen is. On the whole the meal was great, as expected some dishes better than others. I thought the fish/seafood was better than the red meats. I waddled out of there but they send you home with a small box of treats in case you didn't get enough during dinner.

Those sweet somethings, like the ones Volt and Inn at Little Washington offer at meal's end, never make it back to DC when I get 'em.

Hi Tom, thanks for your reviews and chats. What I gather from your Farmers and Fishers is your service was ok unless you were recognized, which is quite common. Your experience at Rasika (and many other well-established restaurants who know who you are) tells me the same thing. As much as I like your reviews, I am leaning toward thinking that you are recognized often, and you get service and an experience accordingly, so at the "well-liked" or "hard-to-get-to" restaurants we rarely get the experience you get, especially if we are trying it for the first time, don't have a history on Open Table (I prefer to book directly with restaurants), or simply don't order couple of things at the same time. Not a critique but an observation as I look through your reviews in the past couple of months (I know that you talk about going multiple times, ask your friends etc. but still, nothing surpasses one being treated very well and attentively at a restaurant, not to mention this day and age probably your friends are being recognized, too? In my book a good restaurant treats everyone like a food critic, and a food critic as a regular customer, and that's the kind of place I like to visit, as often as I can. My two cents...

Yes, I get recognized a lot, but you'd be surprised to know how often that doesn't translate into good service. Often, I just get *more* of stuff -- more poured water, more interruptions.  It actually works against a restaurant. When I know I'm recognized, I work harder to find out how other diners are treated. I'm not going to spell out how I do that, but you should know I do my best to evaluate service.

So there wasn't anything within a two-hour radius worth reviewing?

My readers in the Magazine are curious about what's good beyond the District now and then. Why not write about something special in Charlotesville? 

Hi, Tom! Love the chats! Thanks for the Charlottesville, Virginia review and additional tips. Keep 'em coming!

Thanks for the support.

going to mintwood for the first time. What is good?

What's *not* good?

Hi Tom, I'm taking my husband to Bourbon steak for dinner this weekend for his birthday. He's beyond excited about the A5 wagyu. We also have a bottle of 2007 Scarecrow that we'd like to drink with the meal. It need to be decanted for about 6 hours. I know I can bring my own wine, but will the restaurant be okay with me having opened the bottle to decant and then pouring the wine back in? Just wondering if there are any DC laws around this. Thanks!

Wine enthusiasts I know tend to drop off the wine they want decanted ahead of their reservation (sometimes a week ahead). Is that an option for you?

Wine Kitchen in Leesburg - excellent food, and all wines are available by the glass, half-glass, in pre-determined flights (a bit of a discount) or you can create your own flights.

I second that recommendation!

Indeed. I get to C'ville about once a year and LOVE to hear about new dining opportunities there.

Spoiler alert: I'm not eating close to home for my Feb. 10 column, either!

I actually think the service is a lot better (also, more formal, depending on whether you like that) at Rasika West End. I tend to frequent the latter more just because of the difference in service and the more spacious dining room (I can't really tell much difference in the food, though I know you prefer the original).

Thanks for chiming in.

Happy New Year, Tom! Have you had a chance to read this yet? It is quite a take-down of the epic (torturous?) tasting menus offered by certain celebrity chefs. I know that you are over these tasting menus. He has some great stories about what he's had to experience at some of these. Do you have any you'd like to share? Thanks.

I've shared this before, but during an epic tasting menu at the restaurant-within-a-restaurant at the late Galileo, a dining companion urged me to go to the restroom as we were eating a steaming wedding soup. "Dude, your mustache is falling off!" 


Earlier thoughts on tasting menus.

Tom- What was the most memorable meal you ever had? For me, it was at a friend's house in San Francisco on Telegraph Hill. We cooked overlooking the Golden Gate with foghorns blasting in the background. The meal was beef Wellington washed down with some incredible

Fun question. Hard to answer with just one memory, though, because there are so, so many delicious recollections, including my recent seafood lunch on a boat in Ha Long  Bay in Vietnam ...  a friend's 50th birthday party at the glass-wrapped Steirereck in a snowy Vienna ... a shared sausage and fine French wine, purchased in Dijon, and eaten at 30,000 feet on the way back to DC ...  see what I mean?


I hear a lunch bell. Or is that my stomach growling? Either way, I have to say good-bye for now. Let's do this again next Wednesday. Thanks for joining me.

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 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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